They Pretend to Pay Us and We Pretend to Work, and the Business of Excess Compensation in the Internal Revenue Code

They used to say that in the old Soviet Union about the end result of this:

But now, in a little-noticed move, the House Financial Services Committee, led by chairman Barney Frank, has approved a measure that would, in some key ways, go beyond the most draconian features of the original AIG bill. The new legislation, the “Pay for Performance Act of 2009,” would impose government controls on the pay of all employees — not just top executives — of companies that have received a capital investment from the U.S. government. It would, like the tax measure, be retroactive, changing the terms of compensation agreements already in place. And it would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extraordinary power to determine the pay of thousands of employees of American companies.

Actually, in one way we’ve been here before.

In the Internal Revenue Code there exists the concept of “excess compensation.”  The idea is that compensation above certain limits is not deductible to a corporation, in the same way that dividends are not.  As this post explains, there are all kinds of hoops that corporations go through to get around this limitation, but if Congress really wanted to put the hurts on executive compensation they could pitch these hoops and that would be that.

In closely held corporations, such hoops are harder to fulfil, so this is a constant sword of Damocles over those.  But it’s remarkable that so few Americans know about this.  In the past the Internal Revenue Service has been used to enforce all kinds of social policy, and it will be interesting to see if the Obama Administration will revert to using the IRS in this way on a widespread basis, or will chose to use other blunt instruments (as they have done with all of their bailouts) to impose their will.

The Real Problem with Glenn Beck

The New York Times is worried:

“There are absolutely historical precedents for what is happening with Beck,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There was a lot of radio evangelism during the Depression. People were frustrated and frightened. There are a lot of scary parallels now.”

The conservative writer David Frum said Mr. Beck’s success “is a product of the collapse of conservatism as an organized political force, and the rise of conservatism as an alienated cultural sensibility.”

“It’s a show for people who feel they belong to an embattled minority that is disenfranchised and cut off,” he said.

Joel Cheatwood, a senior vice president for development at Fox News, said he thought Mr. Beck’s audience was a “somewhat disenfranchised” one. And, he added, “it’s a huge audience.”

Our elites have always wanted to reach out to the “disenfranchised.”  The trick, however, is that they’ve always wanted to control the proceedings via institutions such as trade unions, community action groups and the like.  Glenn Beck–and, for that matter, evangelicals like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee–basically take that control away from them, which poses a serious problem.

While on the subject of evangelicals, our glorious religion is referred to as the “religion of resentment.”  Elites don’t like this because they’re the ones being resented.  But resentement is almost a necessity to get any social action movement going.  Most trade unions are fuelled by, amongst other things, resentment.  I’ve seen that for myself, and on top of that I’ve seen situations where the elites, on a small scale, have developed a symbiotic relationship with those trade unions which helped to perpetuate their own control of the proceedings.  Those unfortunate to be caught in the middle were, well, caught in the middle.

The current, Ivy League educated elites we have in the U.S. don’t have the knack to carry out this kind of strategy.  Had they done so, they would have gotten to European style socialism a long time ago, and most everyone would have liked it.  But they just pass laws and fight.  It’s like Spengler says about managing religious conflicts to one’s own advantage: it’s a lost art.

In Glenn Beck’s case, it’s interesting to see a Mormon get in on the act.  Mormons aren’t traditionally a resentment-driven bunch; they’d rather see themselves move up like the Romneys and the Mariotts have.  But evidently they’re starting to have doubts about whether that works or not any more, and so we have Glenn Beck.

Giving Wagoner the Boot: Moving Towards the Yank Version of British Leyland

We’re one step closer…

Instead of granting GM’s request for up to $30 billion in loans, the administration will provide only enough money to keep it going for the next 60 days while it develops an even more sweeping restructuring plan under new leadership.

The government is expected to demand tough concessions from union workers and bond holders.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who met on Friday with the task force, was forced out yesterday at the request of Rattner, an official said.

Fritz Henderson, GM’s president and chief operating officer, is the new CEO, a Treasury source said. Board member Kent Kresa, the former chairman of defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., is interim chairman of GM’s board.

Plans were underway to replace most of GM’s directors in the coming months.

It’s nationalisation, and semantic games won’t change that.  We’re developing the American version of British Leyland, which I predicted in the wake of our elections last November.  As I said then:

Since many of us have discovered Obama’s socialist appeal, let’s start things off right by proposing that he test drive such an idea on an industry that is in desperate straits:  the auto industry.  He could start by replicating the British solution to the problem: consolidating the American auto companies into one conglomerate, like the UK did with British Leyland back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

That was my attempt at humour, but evidently someone up in the terrestrial hierarchy took is seriously.  But I guess I knew that:

This rather “tongue in cheek” exhortation would be funny except that a) there are probably people in the Obama transition team considering it and b) the American auto industry is probably headed for the same fate as its British counterpart.  In addition to producing cars that people either don’t want and/or can’t afford, the trade unions–the scourge of both UK and US car industries–have saddled their companies with long-term obligations to pensioned employees they can’t afford.  It’s true that it’s the result of an era when it was easier to give into the trade unions rather than fight them, but an administration that is (on paper at least) committed to “card check” is in no position to gracefully reverse these obligations.  The inevitable result is that we are about to enter an exercise in futility whose result is all too predictable.

Book Review: Virgil’s Aeneid

I find myself frequently have read one book and coming to the realisation that I need to read another.  For example, my trudging through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Truth and Summa Theologiae convinced me that I needed to read the Bible through from cover to cover, which I forthwith did (and have repeated that journey, for those who are waiting to pounce on me.)  Going through works like the Divine Comedy and even The City of God finally have pushed me into a work which I would have digested had I stuck with Latin studies long enough: Virgil’s Aeneid.  So with the happiest conjunction of events in place (time and a good price on the book) I ploughed into this, the work which became the epic poem of Rome and of Italy itself.

That status in itself deserves an explanation.  Most people think of an epic poem as the product of primitive storytellers repeating things generation after generation until something gets written down.  That line of thinking is a consistent undertow in “critical Biblical studies” and it isn’t always helpful.  Epics, however, can be literary compositions done in civilised settings.  The best example that is widely known today is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien wrote it, in part, to fill what he saw as a lacuna in the folklore of the Anglophone world, and the result has been a resounding success.

The Aeneid was written by Publius Vergilius Maro (70-15 BC) to provide an epic narrative of the founding of Rome.  It was written at the instance of the Emperor Augustus to commemorate his victory at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which sealed his control of the Roman world.  Picking up more or less where the Greeks left off (a good Roman practice,) Virgil’s poem narrates the escape from collapsing Troy of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus, and his subsequent voyage with his of Trojans through the Mediterranean to Rome, where they defeated the local Latins and founded the city that became first a republic and then an empire.  Virgil didn’t quite finish the poem before his death. His idea was that the manuscript be destroyed at his death, but his patron Augustus ignored his wishes, and our civilisation is the better for it.

The outline of the Aeneid is well known and commented on.  In this review I want to concentrate on some impressions of my own, especially as it relates to Christianity.  This work needs to go on the reading lists of Christians for a long list of reasons, some of which I will touch on.

The first impression is that the work has made a deep impact on Western literature, deeper than most Americans at least are probably aware.  Dante just about picks up his epic of the underworld and afterlife where Virgil leaves off, with Virgil himself as the guide through most of it.  Connecting the Aeneid with the Lord of the Rings isn’t as silly an enterprise as it looks: Tolkien is certainly familiar with Virgil and it’s interesting to see both the similarities and the differences between the two.  It’s tempting to see the roots of Tolkien’s work solely in the folklore of Northern Europe, but there’s inspiration from the Aeneid too, especially as it relates to the serious obligations of duty and the single-minded pursuit of it by the heroes.  Both the hobbits and Aeneas pursue their quest because it is their duty.

That leads to the second observation: it’s amazing to modern and post-modern minds how much the Romans accomplished with such a low level of self-actualisation, or to put it more plainly the lack of the permanent emotional high that seems to be the necessary prerequisite for anyone doing anything anymore, from getting out of bed onward.  Virgil sees Aeneas’ mission as the first Roman imperial conquest, but it’s done in a backdrop of the gore of war (which gets full press in the epic) and tragic misunderstandings with the results that go with them (like Carthaginian Queen Dido’s abortive love of Aeneas and his leaving her behind to pursue the quest.)  Virgil understands that war and conquest are not pretty businesses, and it’s interesting that his patron Augustus wanted Virgil’s expression of this to be preserved.

The third point concerns the religious background of the epic.  Although its mythological setting was evident to its readers both then and now, it does represent an expression of the nature of pagan Roman religion in the years immediately preceding the proclamation of the Gospel to the gentiles.  The best way of describing that expression is “creeping monotheism.”  Although the gods and goddesses are many and active, the decisions taken by Jupiter (Jove) have a finality that the rest (especially his own wife Juno) cannot reverse, no matter how hard they try.  That finality is expressed as fate.  It is Aeneas’ fate to found Rome, which is tied to his duty to carry that fate out.  The “heavy hand of fate” that is a leitmotif of the epic is an interesting backdrop both for Paul’s statements regarding predestination, Augustine’s elaboration of same, and the simple fact that, for many in the Roman world, decreed fate from on high was part of the landscape of life, and thus its proclamation from Christian pulpits wasn’t an alien concept (unlike the resurrection.)  On the other hand it puts Cicero’s objection to theism as stifling of free will (to which Augustine responds at length in The City of God) in a pagan context.

Finally, the Aeneid should put to rest any idea that, before Christianity, the ancients’ idea of the afterlife was undifferentiated depending upon the result of this one.  Aeneas is presented with an underworld that literally had a fork in the road, one fork to punishment and the other to happiness in the Elysian Fields.  Dante literally picked up where Virgil left off on this, but the connection between pagan and Christian views of the afterlife are yet another parallel between the old religion and the new.

If the Aeneid is a magnificent work, the translation (John Jackson’s) I picked left a lot to be desired of.   Prose translations of poetry are always controversial, but the truth is that it is the rare translator who can force the rhyme and rhythm of one language into another and make it work.  In Jackson’s case, he squanders whatever advantage he has in using prose by larding it with many antique terms that were going out of currency in his era (just before World War I) and are now completely incomprehensible to all but the enthusiast.  For the Latinless, I would recommend a translation, prose or verse, whose terminology at least makes a stab (making stabs is a big deal in the Aeneid) at communicating with living readers.

The Aeneid is a magnificent work that deserves a place in the canon of Western literature—and the book lists of Christians as well.  Reading it changes the way one looks at many works that have come after it, and that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Rowan Williams’ Haunted England, or Why Europeans Aren’t Found In Church

Air travellers know that an “open jaw” itinerary is one where the destination from which you return is different than the one you departed to.  My idea of an “open jaw” itinerary is one where you arrive at the airport to suddenly find your flight has been cancelled, so you stand with an open jaw…hopefully the incidence of these will decrease with all of the ways we have to keep up with things (but these devices do lie on occasion!)

Following Rowan Williams is rather like an open jaw itinerary of the latter kind: he says something and you just kind of sit or stand there, as the French would say, bouche bée (with your mouth hanging open.)  He did it again earlier this week:

“Britain is not a secular country but is “uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said.

He said church attendance may not be as high as it once was but although Britain may have become secularised it is not yet secular.

Rowan Williams made the comments during a speech at Leicester Cathedral, entitled Faith in the Public Square.

Once my mouth closed again, this remark led me to thinking about why people on the other side of the pond don’t believe in God or go to church the way Americans do.  And that led to something else that was, for me, close to home.

A few years after her divorce, in the mid-1980’s, my mother seriously dated an English insurance executive.  We (my brother and I) were pretty much expecting wedding bells to ring, probably in England, where she loved to go and travel with him.  But they never took place, and the relationship pretty much broke down, like the old British cars.

I never got a complete explanation of this, but I have my ideas.  For one thing, he found out what the whole of the U.S. was to find out in the following decade: never underestimate an Arkie.

However, before she died, my mother gave me another explanation: her boyfriend was not a Christian, and she, for all of the disagreements she had with me about God (some of which you probably have too,) wasn’t going to marry an atheist.  She explained that he had lost his religion during World War II, as was the case with many people on both sides of the English Channel.

It’s never occured to me blame God for World Wars I and II.  None of the movements that pushed Europe into the dual bloodbaths of those conflagrations–modernity in Germany before World War I, National Socialism, Communism, Facism, and the like–were particularly Christian in inspiration, although facists like Mussolini and Franco would use the church for their own ends.  As an American (well, sort of) the idea of abandoning God on account of this was mystifying, and frankly the reaction we actually experienced here after World War II was precisely the opposite.

But Brits and Europeans can be childlike when the occasion calls for it.  Surrounded by official churches (either state sanctioned or state controlled,) evidently they thought that, if the state fails to avoid disasters like these world wars, God and the church must be failures too.  That perception has been buttressed in part by the sappy response of some of these churches.  In Bert’s (her boyfriend’s) case, that sappiness was accentuated by the Church of England.  Although Anglican churches have their strong points, when they’re sappy they have no peer.

That attitude may also be behind another of Rowan Williams’ jaw droppers: his comment that God will not intervene to save us from the effects of global warming.  Although we can debate ad nauseam this subject, as an engineer it never occured to me that he would.  I don’t know of any prosperity teacher who does either.  This is one of those things that we were put here to fix, so we should get on with it.  The reason why we haven’t are political rather than technological in any case, as I discussed here four years ago.  We may need a miracle or two to get us through, but if we get one, we don’t deserve it.

I really dislike the whole business of “blaming God.”  But there one lesson for us: it’s dangerous to so tightly tie one’s Christianity to one’s country.  That’s something that American Evangelicals need to remember.  The good news in the bad news these days is that untying the two is a lot easier than it was just a short time ago.

The Ignorance of the Laity, in TEC and Elsewhere

A.S. Haley may have missed the unintentional humour of Judge Larry Schwartz in his decision favouring TEC in the case involving Grace Church and St. Stephens in Colorado.  Part of his decision reads as follows:

For one thing, it appears to be rare that parish members, induding members of the governing Vestry, know anything about the details of canon law. In fact, Bishop O’Neil testified that no one expects church members to know much about the canons. That testimony is consistent with what was testified to by lay members of the parish; all of whom said they knew little or nothing about the canons. Thus, when the parish executes a document that pledges fidelity to canon law, it does so without members of the parish having actual knowledge or understanding of what it is that is being adopted.

Many years ago, I took Fluid Mechanics as part of my engineering education.  Our teacher was Prof. Edwin Sereno Holdredge, a Lenoir City, TN native (and UTK graduate, for you Vols fans) whose dry East Tennessee humour escaped many of his urban, Texas raised students.  One time he was talking about some consulting work for the Army about fluid flow around buildings.  He said that “They said they didn’t know anything about fluid flow around buildings,” and then added, “They were right, they didn’t.”  (Those of you involved with the military will have a special appreciation for that!)

Nevertheless, it’s amazing that laity, who invest their lives and time in their local church and denomination, are a) so ignorant about the workings of their church and b) so unable to have input on it because of the way their church actually works.  As Judge Schwartz goes on to opine:

For another, canons are essentially created and imposed unilaterally. They appear always to have been adopted at the National Convention. Once they are adopted, they are imposed on all parishes through publication in the Episcopal Book of Canons.  Even though the board that recommends changes to canons is made up of representatives from individual parishes, the canons are still ultimately imposed upon individual parishes from the hierarchy of bishops. Application of canon law is based more upon membership in the Episcopal Church than it is upon adoption through a democratic process where all individual church members participate.

And, I might add, TEC isn’t the only church which has this problem, either.  The undemocratic nature of this is evident, but when it comes to property disputes, it may have legal implications if a court would decide to pursue the matter.  Judge Schwartz goes on:

The perceptual legal problem with this procedure is the one argued by these Plaintiffs and those in other schism cases: that under a “neutral principles” analysis, it is difficult to understand how unilaterally imposed canons can create a legal trust relationship. While the canons form the basis for govemance within the Episcopal religion, they are usually unknown to all but the clergy and they don’t create a trust relationship in the manner one normally comes to expect. Unlike the secular “norm”, the canons purport to create a trust through a process that is the opposite of most estate situations. That is, the trust is created by the beneficiary of that trust and is imposed unilaterally on the settlor/trustee.

Fortunately for TEC (and other centrally held churches,) this Colorado court, like its counterparts in California, have held the Dennis Canon to have created the trust that owns the property, irrespective of how little input the laity (or most anyone else in the church) have had in its creation.  But the possibility exists that, in the future, a court could go the other way based on the way in which this “trust” is created.  That’s especially a problem for TEC because of the ex post facto nature of the Dennis Canon (the Church of God’s practice is more consistent,) but up to now such a court has not been found.

In the meanwhile, it would behoove churches to make their laity more participants than spectators in the life of the church.  It’s consistent with the New Testament concept of the role of the laity and, as we saw recently in Conneticut, there’s a move out there to impose that on churches.  It hasn’t succeeded.  Yet.

The Real Presence Won’t Get People Out of the Episcopal Church

Thad Stevens wonders why it’s hard to get people out of the Episcopal Church:

Most Common Cause parishes don’t compare favourably with neighbouring Episcopal parishes in worship and the Sacraments. In most cases, the problem isn’t due to size or limited financial resources, but to attitude–‘snake-belly’ low services and sloppy celebrations of the Eucharist don’t appeal to most Episcopalians. Aesthetics are also important: the appearance of the sanctuary or other worship site can often be improved without spending a lot of money. Music can easily be adapted to be like that of neighbouring Episcopal or Roman Catholic parishes. But neither of these will be effective without a change in attitude regarding the Real Presence. It is often said in marketing that “enthusiasm sells,” but “sincerity convinces.”

Having grown up in this, I can attest to the appeal of the aesthetics–architectural and otherwise–of old (or old looking) Episcopal churches.  But he makes the a priori assumption that High Church worship and the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are tied together.  My years as a Roman Catholic tell me this is not the case:

Bethesda (by-the-Sea Episcopal Church) wasn’t quite an Anglo-Catholic church then, but the undertow was there: very formal liturgy (and trained acolytes to help with it,) paid youth and adult choirs to make sure they got it right, and very long (~1 hr 30 min) Holy Communions with all of Cramner’s antique prose topped off by the 1928 Prayer Book’s prayer for the dead.  And everyone dressed up for the occasion.

St. Edward’s (Roman Catholic Church) was a whole different story: modern liturgy (the Novus Ordo Missae had only been official for two years,) no music at many Masses, no intonations of “Gawd” from the altar like the Episcopalians did.  Without music and with the right celebrant, thirty-five minutes and the sacred mysteries were done, at which point all of the men stampeded out in their golf shirts, presumably having made a tee time at the Everglades Club or the Breakers.  (Catholics’ way of dressing down for Mass was way ahead of its time.)

Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing.  Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.

I am an ardent exponent of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  But that doesn’t necessarily require an elaborate, formal and frilly High Church worship to make it a reality.  For those Pentecostals who are dabbling in liturgical experimentation, it’s a lesson worth taking.  And for Anglicans who are wondering why their Episcopal counterparts don’t leave, it’s something to keep in mind.