Animal Spirits – How Human Psychology Drives The Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism

Animal Spirits

In their new book, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller suggest that:

The confidence of a nation, or of any large group, tends to revolve around stories. Of particular relevance are new era stories, those that purport to describe historic changes that will propel the economy into a brand new era.” (p.55).

Akerlof and Shiller go on to state: “Confidence is not just the emotional state of an individual. It is a view of other people’s confidence, and of other people’s perceptions of other people’s confidence.” (emphasis is mine p.55) .

Stories, changes, a new era, emotional states, perceptions — confidence — all terms that John Maynard Keynes might point to as sources of explanatory power for economic fluctuations and the instabilities that inhabit capitalism. Keynes, Akerlof and Shiller refer to these influences as animal spirits.

Accordingly, the thesis of this work is captured in the following:

“To understand how economies work and how we can manage them and prosper, we must pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people’s ideas and feelings — We will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature.” (p.1)

“The human mind is built to think in terms of narratives, of sequences of events with an integral logic and dynamic that appear as a unified whole. In turn, much of human motivation comes from living through a story of our lives, a story we tell to ourselves and that creates a framework for motivation. Life could be “just one damn thing after another” if it weren’t for these stories. The same is true for confidence in a nation, a company, or an institution. Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories.” (p.51).

This is a groundbreaking work in macroeconomics. Macroeconomics, as it has evolved over the last several decades, might lead one to  succumb to the sheer beauty and mystery of the mathematical portrayals and the inter-related interpretations thereof. This book reveals a new frontier that will hopefully spawn solid research and new explanatory tools – inter-disciplinary in nature (psychology, sociology and perhaps neurological) that may form the new theories of macroeconomics and lead us to courageously consider what we think we know about economic behavior, economies, and the motivations of economic beings — from a variety of perspectives.

The dawn of new era stories in macroeconomics is upon us. Read what Akerlof and Shiller have to say. Enjoy! I certainly did.


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R=MC2 Economic Recovery and the Misunderstood U.S. Consumer Conundrum

R=MC2

Economic Recovery and the Misunderstood U.S.  Consumer Conundrum

By Bill Dahl

All Rights Reserved 2009

The US Consumer

No, the formula above is not a misprint. Einstein’s famous E = mc2 was attempting to illustrate that matter and energy are simply different forms of the same thing – energy can be converted to matter and matter into energy. In the current economic dialog in the U.S., economists and political pundits would like us to buy into another formula they seem to be purveying. It looks like this: R=MC2. In other words, economic recovery and the U.S. consumer have a similar, symbiotic relationship. U.S. consumers are tantamount to a recovery and recovery can restore the U.S. consumer. They both matter. Sounds reasonable, until you examine the assumptions, illusions, realities, and uncertainties that underlie the merits of this thesis. What if R=MC2 is a formula that requires us to explore the Recovery and the Misunderstood Consumer Conundrum? Well, that’s exactly what this article intends to do.

According to the September 4, 2009 issue of Banc Investment Daily:  “Without credit expanding in the marketplace, the US economy is almost 100% reliant on a consumer led recovery that will not occur until firms start hiring again.” (emphasis is mine). Today, you hear this phrase everywhere; the consumer, the American consumer, consumer spending, waiting for a consumer stimulated recovery Did you realize that consumer spending produces about two-thirds of all the economic activity in the U.S.? Who are these people? Why aren’t they spending? What’s changed? According to one source, they’re out of the economic game for the moment “The big driver of the economy is still on the sidelines. The household sector is worried about the job market and until that shows some significant improvement, households are going to be pretty restrained,”(1) — On the sidelines? Restrained? What’s going on? What’s really going on?

First of all, what are the characteristics you must possess to be considered a “U.S. consumer? Here’s a few attributes to consider:

  1. Your dog cannot buy dog food at Wal-Mart. No matter how hungry that beast might become, you, the human companion, must transport yourself to the store and do the deed.
  2. Capacity – Currency – Yes, money. You simply must have some. Of course, that might be in one of several forms like cash, a credit card or credit line.
  3. Need – There must be a fundamental need that requires satisfaction that moves you to act upon satisfying the need by exchanging your currency for a product or service that will fulfill the need.
  4. Willingness – You must be willing to part with some of the currency you have (you’re the buyer, as they say) to acquire something from a seller.
  5. Yes, I know – you probably should reside the majority of the year in the U.S.

The above sounds pretty simple. It is, unless you’re contemplating whether or not the historical definition of the U.S. consumer has somehow changed tangibly as a product of the current recession we are experiencing. Economics is a social science, just like psychology or sociology. It has a penchant to look at the past for explanatory power that can be applied to both the present and the future. Typically, this economic information is embedded with statistics and the inter-relationships among the statistics. Human beings elaborate on the interrelationship insights for us. At times, this explanatory power is misguided and inaccurate. In his award winning book, When Genius Failed – The Rise and fall of Long Term Capital Management, Roger Lowenstein characterizes one of the central weaknesses of the firm, that is pertinent to this point: “The partners assumed that, all else being equal, the future would look like the past.” (2)

At this time, in the midst of this particular economic conundrum, I hear a chorus of voices in the economic and political sectors singing the same ol’ tune – the same song my mom taught me about a lost puppy:

“Oh Where, Oh where has the American consumer gone?

Oh where, Oh where can he or she be?

With his ears cut short and her tail cut long,

Oh where, Oh where can he or she be?”

It’s like economists and pundits are looking for a pack of lost dogs. What if the appearance of the lost dogs you were looking for had changed? How would you know what they now looked like? How would you be certain if you had found the right dog? What if some of the dogs had been hurt and were hunkered down somewhere, dizzy, scared, hungry and nauseous? What if some of the dogs had died, unbeknownst to you? How many are you looking for? How would you know? Are you certain?

Listen to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his most recent book, The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable:

“Categorizing is necessary for human, but it become pathological when the category is see as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories.”(3) The long held notion of the U.S. consumer has now escaped the confines of the definitive box where we have held them for so long.

It is the thesis of this author that:

  1. The historical characterization of the term American consumer has tangibly and substantively changed. It has eroded. Both the capacity and behavior of the U.S. consumer that has been broadly relied upon as descriptive for previous historical epochs, has morphed – in a negative way. Thus, wishful thinking that yearns aloud for and/or prophecies concerning the imminent resurrection of the old American consumer, is both out of date and fraught with the propensity for disappointment, miscalculation and deception.

2.Quoting Psychologist Franz Epting,  using an excerpt from Rom and Ori Barfman’s most recent book entitled, SWAY – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, the following quote poignantly reinforces my position stated above: “We use diagnostic labels to organize and simplify. But any classification that you come up with has got to work by ignoring a lot of other things — with the hope that the things you are ignoring don’t make a difference. And that’s where the rub is. Once you get a label in mind, you don’t notice things that don’t fit within categories that do make a difference.” (4)

My position is that the label, U.S. Consumer, as historically referred to by present-day economists and politicians, simply does not accurately reflect the actual contents of what’s in the jar it is affixed to. The contents have changed. The label and people’s use of it has remained unchanged. There are things that we are currently ignoring that do make a difference. Do we need a new label or should we examine the current contents of what comprises the U.S. consumer inside the jar?

3. The capacity of the present-day U.S. consumer has distinctly, materially deteriorated in terms of availability of disposable income (both savings and cash flow in excess of debt service), stability of income streams (stable employment – ongoing rises in national unemployment figures), eligibility for consumer credit products (due to debt-to-income and credit score considerations), access to credit products (tighter underwriting standards from credit issuers and the reduction in consumer credit limits on a variety of consumer credit products). It is a reasonable expectation is that this deterioration in the U.S. consumer’s capacity will continue for the next decade or so.

Once again, I believe the current socio-economic/socio-political dialogue that references the capacity of the re-emergence of the U.S. consumer is laden with an outdated definition, bereft of the reality of the substantive damage the actual U.S. consumer has incurred in this recession, since 2007. Furthermore, I believe inertia exists within the arena of economics that persists in perpetuating a long-held, widely shared concept of the attributes and potential propensity U.S. consumer to jumpstart economic recovery – a concept that is outdated, deceptive, and fails to appreciate the reality of the current economic attributes of those labeled as such.

Joshua Cooper Ramo provides an illustration of my point here, when he writes in his most recent book, The Age of the Unthinkable – Why The New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It:

“The explanation for this shared wrong view — you had to call it a delusion really — was social rather than factual. People agreed because they wanted to be part of the community more than they wanted to be right. It was a situation you could find echoed around the world in foreign policy or finance in 2008: a set of shared, wrong ideas, clung to loyally by people who couldn’t quite see past their illusions or the imagination-killing need to agree and fit in.”(5)

What is essential is for the economic intelligentsia in academia and private enterprise to embark on re-assessing how the capacity of the present day U.S. consumer differs materially, substantively from those who have comprised the term in previous historical eras. Furthermore, they must then inform us as to how this capacity can be restored to contribute strategically to recovery. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “Awareness of a problem does not mean much — particularly when you have special interests and self-serving institutions at play”(6)

4. There sheer numbers and historical prowess of   U.S. consumers consistently referred to as the economic engine of the U.S. have been distinctly wounded and impaired during the ongoing recession.  Without immediate and meaningful repair, both their numbers and capacity are likely to continue to dwindle for several decades.

Time Magazine wrote in their June 10, 2009 issue:

“American consumers, whose overspending largely got us into this mess, are still under massive pressure, owing to the record debt they racked up during the boom years. People are unwinding those burdensome obligations — from mortgages to car loans to credit-card debt — as fast as they can, but the process is sure to take years, and until it is complete, the economy can’t fully bounce back. “(7)

According to Time’s sources, In April 2009, unpaid consumer credit — limited solely to credit cards, auto loans and tuition-financing — fell by $15.7 billion to $2.52 trillion. This would be a 7.4% drop on an annualized basis and perhaps, seemingly, the second largest dollar drop on record — right after March 2009’s  $16.6 billion reduction. What those figures do not tells us about are the reductions that were a function of non-payment by U.S. consumers and thus, write-offs/write-downs by their credit grantors.

Gluskin-Sheff’s Chief Economist and Strategist David Rosenberg writes: “Even though we’re probably past the worst in the business cycle and probably even in the bear market, we’re talking about something much bigger here. The largest balance sheet in the world is the U.S. household balance sheet, and it’s contracting at a record rate.  — The ratio of debt to income increased from about 35% in the early 1950s to about 65% by the mid-1960s, where it more or less stayed until the late 1980s. That’s when debt started its epic rise, hitting 100% of income in 2001 and going all the way up to 133% in 2007.” (8)

U.S. consumer confidence declined to a four-month low in August 2009, due primarily to ongoing additions to the unemployment rolls. Even though spending rose humbly in July 2009 (driven primarily by “Cash for clunkers”), this suggests that the recovery from recession will be protracted and sluggish. Incomes have been flat, and disposable incomes (after debt service) continue to decline. The U.S. savings rate has not increased substantially, adding further pressure on families, when coupled with falling home prices and rising unemployment.

According to John Silvia, Chief Economist for Wells Fargo Securities, “The current path of employment dramatically lags the path … of the prior seven economic cycles, Here’s how dramatically: The number of jobs in the US has fallen by about 5 percent – or 6.9 million – since the start of the recession in December 2007. In the prior seven recessions, on average, the number of jobs was down by 1 percent.”(9)

According to Bloomberg’s John Wasik – “The loss of some $7 trillion in household wealth is an albatross around the neck of the economy. This dour effect is clipping a robust recovery. Millions who have little or negative home equity are shackled to houses they can’t sell and a debt burden that keeps them from moving ahead. They can’t save, either, although they desperately need to boost their cash reserves.”(10) Another observer puts it this way: “About $7 trillion has been taken from the wealth account of property owners. If there are 130 million housing units in the United States (rental and owner occupied), then owners have lost an average of $54,000 per unit they own. The loss is massive. Foreclosure sales are a leading source of falling values. Payment performance on mortgages is terrible and getting worse. More than 4% of mortgages are in foreclosure. More than 13% of mortgages (ONE IN EIGHT) are behind. There is no indication of a turn-around in current payments on mortgages. How does optimism make sense of this payment history?” (11)

The Wall Street Journal reported (Improving Home Sales Belie Market Reality, 8/21/09) that two-thirds of residential homes sales in the U.S. are currently some form of distressed sale. (12) “Think about that for a minute,” John Mauldin of Millennium Wave Advisors wrote recently. “Two-thirds of home sales are either foreclosures or banks taking a loss on the mortgage. And only a third of the remaining one-third — roughly 10% of overall sales — comes from ‘something we could call a normal selling process.”(13)

Finally, Michael David White – In his article Debt Man Walking writes, “we are a country with perhaps 20% of our households heavily overleveraged. Their failed-gold-rush balance sheet will lead to unprecedented mortgage and credit card defaults.” (14)

Summary:

So here we are – considering and age old formulaic concept for economic recovery — one in which a key component of the equation has distinctly morphed – it’s changed. R=MC2Recovery and the Misunderstood Consumer Conundrum.

In their new book, George Akerlof and Robert Shiller suggest that:

The confidence of a nation, or of any large group, tends to revolve around stories. Of particular relevance are new era stories, those that purport to describe historic changes that will propel the economy into a brand new era.” (15)

Akerlof and Shiller go on to state: “Confidence is not just the emotional state of an individual. It is a view of other people’s confidence, and of other people’s perceptions of other people’s confidence.” (emphasis is mine) (16)

Stories, changes, a new era, emotional states, perceptions — confidence — all terms that John Maynard Keynes might point to as sources of explanatory power for economic fluctuations and the instabilities that inhabit capitalism. Keynes, Akerlof and Shiller refer to these influences as animal spirits.

The U.S. consumer, the resilient, economic animal that is said to power this economy, and provide the impetus that shall lead us out of the current economic doldrums, is wounded and restless.

Perhaps this article shall provide some motivation to move beyond the trillions in U.S. government investment directed at stabilizing systemic risk, and begin to strategize essential, overdue redress for the U.S. consumer.

—A voice overheard at the zoo:

That tiger looks worried, tired and hungry mommy — It doesn’t look healthy.

Perhaps you don’t have to be Einstein to figure this equation out. The energy (or lack thereof) within the U.S. consumer matters.

NOTES:

1.The Malaysian Insider – September 5, 2009 – U.S. Consumer Spending Up – But Morale Lowhttp://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/business/36332-us-consumer-spending-up-but-morale-at-4-month-low

2. Lowenstein, Roger – When Genius Failed The Rise and Fall of Long Term Capital Management 2001 Randon House Trade Paperback Edition Copyright ©2000 by Roger Lowenstein, p. 59.

3. Taleb, Nicholas Nassim The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable Random House, NY, NY Copyright © 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, p. 15.

4. Brafman, Ori and Rom – SWAY – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior – Doubleday – A Division of Random House, Inc. – New York, New York, Copyright © by Ori and Ron Brafman.pp. 74-75.

5. Ramo, Joshua Cooper – The Age of the Unthinkable – Why The New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. (Copyright © 2009 by Joshua Cooper Ramo – Little, Brown and Company New York, NY). P. 62.

6. Taleb, Nicholas Nassim The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable Random House, NY, NY Copyright © 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, p. 47.

7. Time Magazine – June 10, 2009 – “A Drag on the Economic Rebound – Consumer Spending

8. http://www.gluskinsheff.com/

9. http://csinvestor.com/investing-guide/economic-bubbles/

10.  Bloomberg – Wasik, John – September 2, 2009 – Housing’s ‘Poverty Effect’ Fouls Up U.S. Rebound:

11.  White, Mike – writing in http://newobservations.net/

12.  Wall Street Journal 8-21-09 – Improving Home Sale Belie Market Reality –    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125081143925447971.html

13.  John Mauldin – Thoughts from the Frontline

14.  White, Michael David – Debt Man Walking – July 17, 2009 http://newobservations.net/2009/07/17/debt_man_walking/

15.  Akerlof, George A. and Shiller, Robert J. – Animal Spirits – How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ USA and Oxford, UK Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press, p. 55.

16.  Ibid., p. 55

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The Central Oreconundrum Story

The Central Oreconundrum Story

IMG_1411

By Bill Dahl

All Rights Reserved

Finally, somebody has said it in print. Timothy Duy, a University of Oregon economist stated in the Bend Bulletin (page A-5 – column 2) on Sunday August 30th that:

Oregon should revamp its economic development strategy.

This story went on to disparage the fact that the State of Oregon’s unemployment rates have been touted as second only to the State of Michigan, due primarily in the way the sampling was performed. In the Business section of this same edition pages G-1 and G-5), the Bulletin (with Duy’s tutelage) produces the Central Oregon Business Index where a number of quantitative measures are interpreted. Duy goes on to say, “All bubbles are built on an underlying truth, and there was a good story fueling this bubble – that there had been fairly strong growth over a long period of time based on the region’s attractiveness as a place to live and do business.” Going back to the story on page A-5, Duy says that “Oregon is still and attractive place to live and that the economic woes of central Oregon could actually work to its advantage because a surplus of affordable new housing in and around Bend will make it more appealing to businesses looking for a new home.”

Are you confused by the story line above? Don’t worry, you’ve got a boat load of company. Here are a couple of things Duy’s comments prompted in my mind:

1. “Bubbles are built on an underlying truth.” That’s simply patently absurd. Bubbles are built on myth and illusion – that’s why they call them bubbles. They’re not real…no matter how many millions of people succumb to the fantasy.

2. Businesses considering relocation have priorities that the states/regions/municipalities they are considering must possess. Availability of suitable land at or below comparable pricing of commercial real estate in other locales, tax issues, transportation, cost of energy and a whole cadre of other issues. Affordable housing for employees is most certainly a consideration – yet, one that is typically down the list of the initial priorities when evaluating the merits of business relocation. Wait a minute! It wasn’t too long ago that central Oregonians were being told the price of housing and available workforce were tangible impediments to attracting new companies to this region. Well, Katie bar the door! With the tri-county area in central Oregon achieving double-digit rates of unemployment (some of the highest in the State) and the glut of affordable housing on the market, should we be expecting an immediate inflow of companies relocating to our region?

3. To purchase a home assumes that one has a stable income. Stable incomes are derived from well-established and growing employment markets that offer wages whereby one can obtain a mortgage.

What’s wrong with this story? Listen to the following:

“The human mind is built to think in terms of narratives, of sequences of events with an integral logic and dynamic that appear as a unified whole. In turn, much of human motivation comes from living through a story of our lives, a story we tell to ourselves and that creates a framework for motivation. Life could be “just one damn thing after another” if it weren’t for these stories. The same is true for confidence in a nation, a company, or an institution. Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories.” [i]

Here’s my question: What’s our story central Oregon – Redmond?

If, as it has been said, ideas come and go, stories stay,[ii]what’s the story?

Macroeconomics, as portrayed in the August 30th edition of the Bend Bulletin, one might be susceptible to succumbing to the sheer beauty and mystery of the mathematical portrayals and the inter-related interpretations thereof. However, this particular story stirred dissatisfaction within me, in terms of the superficial, self-serving and salutary discussion. As one author cautions us:

“It’s all about keeping evaluations tentative instead of certain, learning to be comfortable with complex, sometimes contradictory information, and taking your time and considering things from different angles before coming to a conclusion”[iii] — it is at this juncture where we may fall prey to the diagnostic bias – “our propensity to label people, ideas or things based on our initial opinions of them — and our inability to reconsider those judgments once we’ve made them.”[iv]

Well, what’s our story? I cannot settle for the story being propagated in today’s Bulletin. Perhaps this is an important part of the economic conundrum we face in central Oregon. Maybe we need to focus on developing another story – a vastly better story that energizes people, provides hope, infuses innovation, new forms of collaboration and a vision for the formation of a regional economic mosaic that the current story is incapable of spawning. To steal an appropriate quote from another author (who likely stole it from someone else), this point is succinctly captured in the following: “As they say in Texas: “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.”[v]

Some will scoff and even mock the suggestions herein. Others, may not read this far. Yet, others who do listen to what is being said here will garner an appreciation that, “Words — spoken and listened to, written and read — are intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness, wisdom and hope.” [vi] I hope for a better future for Redmond and this region. Admittedly, I am not an economist. But I am a citizen exercising his right to speak about matters that are important to me, and many others. The following provides some context for where I am coming from:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBA’s who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” [vii]

Should we accept the challenge of creating this new story, we must stay informed as to the thought processes that are breaching old boundaries from researchers, authors and academia. Why is paying attention to the thinkers so important? Listen to the following:

“To understand how economies work and how we can manage them and prosper, we must pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people’s ideas and feelings — We will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature.”[viii]

Finally, I will end with this:

“At a certain level, when it comes to the future, the only thing one can be sure of is that common sense will be wrong.”[ix]

Perhaps it’s time for some uncommon sense to be injected in editing the story line of the central Oregon Econundrum?

What’s your story?

Gotta pen?

NOTES:


[i] Akerlof, George A. and Shiller, Robert J. – Animal Spirits – How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ USA and Oxford, UK Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press, p. 51.

[ii] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Random House, Inc. New York, New York Copyright © 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb p. xxvii

[iii] Brafman, Ori and Rom – SWAY – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior – Doubleday – A Division of Random House, Inc. – New York, New York, Copyright © by Ori and Ron Brafman.p. 178.

[iv] Ibid p. 70.

[v] Friedman, Thomas L. – Hot, Flat and Crowded – Why We Need A Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, Farrar,Strauss & Giroux New York, New York Copyright © 2008 by Thomas L. Friedman, p. 6.

[vi] Peterson, Eugene H. – Eat This Book – A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Wm. B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan  Copyright © 2006 by Eugene H. Peterson, p. 21.

[vii] Pink, Daniel H. – A Whole New Mind – Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books – Penguin Group (USA) Inc. New York, New York Copyright © 2005 by Daniel H. Pink, p. 1.

[viii] Akerlof, George A. and Shiller, Robert J. – Animal Spirits – How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ USA and Oxford, UK Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press, p. 1.

[ix] Friedman, George – The Next 100 Years – A Forecast for the 21st Century – Doubleday – A Division of Random House, Inc. – New York, New York, Copyright © 2009 by George Friedman, p. 3.

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The Dream Lives On…

Teddy

It has been said that:

Story is the most natural way of enlarging and deepening our sense of reality, and then enlisting us as participants in it. Stories open doors to areas or aspects of life that we didn’t know were there, or had quit noticing out of over-familiarity, or supposed were out of bounds to us. They then welcome us in. Stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” (1)

Growing up, our family had a black and white television. I vividly recall watching the evening news most week nights with my dad. Some of my earliest, most formative memories came from those newscasts — images of the injustice and violence during the civil rights movement — the hateful attitudes and nasty dialogue that provided me with a sense that my country had some challenges it was wrestling desperately with. I’ll never forget sometime during the spring of 1963 when our television pumped out the images and sounds of the violence that occurred during the march(es) and protests in Birmingham, Alabama — where student protesters were beaten by the police with billy clubs, knocked down by fire hoses, and savagely attacked by German Shepherd police dogs. I was scared. I asked my dad if that kind of stuff was going to happen in our neighborhood. His attention was riveted on the TV set and didn’t respond.

Images of a country named Vietnam came into our living room. I began to hear strange terms like agent orange, nigger, George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan, protests, marches, non-violence, Dr. King, desegregation, civil rights, racism, equal rights, riots, astronaut John Glenn, The Peace Corp., congress, congressional hearings and legislation.

In November 1963, I had just turned nine years old. My dad was Catholic. He never attended mass because he had gone through a divorce and was not allowed to participate in the faith of his upbringing. My dad thought it some sort of a miracle that a young,  Irish-Catholic could be elected to the office of President of the United States. He was proud of our country for electing John F. Kennedy to this office. Dad said it was “another great chapter in the unfolding of the American dream.” I had no idea what he meant.

That day in November 1963 when JFK was assassinated, my nine year old life blew seemingly apart. Both my parents were sobbing, crying and angry. This went on for a week or so. It was a nightmare for a nine year-old kid.

During this time, something remarkable happened to me. I mustered the courage to grab a pencil and paper and go to my room. I wrote a poem about JFK. It was the first time in my life that my soul screamed for expression via the written word. When I was done, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I decided to share it with my mom. She wept at my words then hugged me and told me how beautiful those words were – “spoken from your heart,” she said.

About ten days later, that poem ended up in my grade school teacher’s hands. She read it to my class. At the end she said, “by Bill Dahl.” I turned purple and wanted to disappear, as my classmates turned their gaze upon me. The teacher began to clap and so did my classmates. A few had visible tears in their eyes. I felt relieved, yet uneasy. It’s like someone revealed a part of my soul without my permission. Another thing happened that day — I was bestowed with the courage to learn to write and speak about issues that concerned me, and share them with others.

Today, I recognize the impact the Kennedy brothers have had on my life — an enduring, positive contribution indeed. Whether you agreed with their positions on the issues that have confronted this country throughout their years is frankly, immaterial now. Those contributions are woven very carefully and intricately into the fabric of this nation, providing the renewal of a dream, inclusion,  participation, comfort and hope for millions who would exist without the same, had it not been for their leadership, vision and unswerving dedication to public service.

Today is a day to say thank you to Teddy. Today, I express in writing, my most heartfelt thanks for the Kennedy contribution in my life, and in my country.

Teddy – A distinguished public servant who dedicated his life to advocating for the poor, disabled, women’s rights, refugees, immigrants and the politically disadvantaged. His signature is indelibly imprinted on the soul of this nation regarding many other issues including health care, education, civil and human rights, campaign-finance reform and labor law. He steadfastly opposed war, yet battled tirelessly throughout his career, on many fronts, in the U.S. Senate.

We have a lot of work yet to be done, as characterized in what has become a few of Teddy’s most poignant words:

“There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination — not merely victory for our Party but renewal for our nation. This November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

Senator Edward M. Kennedy
August 25, 2008
Denver, CO

Hold your torch high! Rise again with hope. Let’s work together to make this ever unfolding American dream live on and become a reality for millions more.

Notes:

(1) Peterson, Eugene Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places – A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Wm. B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2005 by Eugene H. Peterson, p. 13.

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Book Review: The Seven Faith Tribes – by George Barna

seven-faith-tribes

Well…I have to be honest. When I received this book in the mail, I dropped all my other reading to devour it. When I finished (July 1st 2009), well — it’s now the end of August and what I want to say about this book required some digestion — almost two months of digestion.

First and foremost, an admission: I am and have been for almost 20 years a consumer of George Barna’s research, writing, public speaking enagagements and his take on the state of the Christian, Christianity and the Church in the U.S. More recently, I have become acquainted with the outstanding published work of Barna’s protege (since 1995 and currently President of The Barna Group), David Kinnaman. Kinnaman’s book – UNchristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters remains, in my opinion, the pre-eminent synthesis of reliable research illuminating the challenges for the Christian, Christianity and the Church in the U.S. in the 21st century.

What I observed in The Seven Faith tribes that I had not recognized is Barna’s forty odd other books in print is the following:

1. Patriotism and Nationalism – Heck, the first chapter is entitled, “America Is On A Path To Self-Destruction.” Personally, I share a similar sense of patriotic fervor toward this great nation. Furthermore, I share the author’s hope for a bright future and an emergence from the myriad of ills this nation is currently struggling with. However, I have never witnessed Barna write about these issues as the guiding lenses through which he appears to interpret the implications of body of research he is grappling with. This is not a value judgment – simply an observation.

2. A Call for Inter-faith Cooperation and Understanding – As BarnaBarna summarizes the thesis of the book in the following:

“Rather than asking the various faith tribes to accept the unacceptable, I am advocating that they admit they possess significantly different worldviews but within the framework of those worldviews lies a base of values that we can all agree upon. The power of those shared values constitutes the glue that can hold this country together.” (p.111)

Wow! a died-in-the-wool evangelical calling for inter-faith understanding, a consensus on shared values, and an admonition to create “a new narrative together“:

The American Narrative is outdated; now is an opportune time to construct a new story about our views, values and vison (p.203) – break down barriers between faith tribes (p.203) – build bridges of trust and respect among the tribes (p.204) and encouraging cross-tribal interactions (p.204).”

Folks like Eboo Patel have got to be jumping for joy reading Barna’s words excerpted above!

3. A Distinct Sense Of Urgency – As Barna States in the final chapter, “A Vision For Restoring America“:

“The future of America is at stake. The future can best be advanced by the efforts of our faith tribes. Play your role in the process to help restore vitality to America. Your life, and that of millions of other people, will be better for it.” (p.205).

As I “digested the above,” I came to several conclusions, after reviewing, re-reading sevral segments of the book again, on more than one occasion. These include the following:

a. Barna’s work has always been prophetic – His observations and calls for action typically precede the awareness of most people. Remember, from a biblical perspective, the vast majority of people ignored prophets. However, for a prophet to be considered prophetic, the prophecies espoused by the prophet would have to be correct. The exhortations of George Barna, recorded in print throughout his career, merit prophetic consideration. The Seven Faith Tribes volume, his most recent, merit perhaps his most heartfelt clarion call.

b. Courage – It takes guts to author a work like this one, particularly when it is laden with issues that include ethnicity, belief systems, value attribution, socio-economic, socio-political, geo-political and terribly personal calls for change…dynamic change…supernatural change — no matter what faith tribe you may deem yourself affiliated with (or not).

As Barna points out, the challenge for this country are not “process problems, as much as they are people problems.” (p. 196). He calls for healing the heart of this nation, envisioning a new America and illuminates the fundamental and indispensible role of America’s seven faith tribes in this process. He shares the words of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, when Senator Kennedy was faced with the task of informing a gathering in Indiannapolis of the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King:

“What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” (p.195).

Barna asks:

“Forty years later, what progress have we made toward the goals the Senator set forth that day?”

Barna’s – The Seven Faith Tribes – Who They Are, What They Believe, And Why They Matter is a present day wake-up call that progress in the United States requires the coming together for people of all different faith persuasions to:

“rise to the occasion during times of crisis. In such perilous moments, a nation’s future demands that it dig deep into its soul and draw on a reservoir of moral and spiritual strength to do what is right.” (p. 197).

Prophetic? Well, that depends upon what you do with what you hear.

Listen to Barna in this book. Act upon what he admonishes each of us to do…individually and collectively.

Surrender is a verb.

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Book Review: SWAY – The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior

SWAY

SWAY – The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman – Doubleday Copyright (c) 2008.

In my opinion, an socio-economic, social-psychological classic. This volume is jam-packed with keen insights about human behavior. Irrational tendencies endure like mold – they grow in the damp darkness of our existence. Ori and Rom Brafman turn the light switch on and examine the realities that are inhabiting the recesses of human perception, judgment and value-attribution. As they point out:

Once we attribute a certain value to a person or thing, it dramatically alters our perceptions of subsequent information. This power of value attribution is so potent that it affects us even when the value is assigned completely arbitrarily.” (p. 55)

They go on to illuminate what they refer to as the “diagnosis bias” or:

“our propensity to label people, ideas or things based on our initial opinions of them — and our inability to reconsider those judgments once we’ve made them. (p.70).

This work blends into the new thinking that appears to be oozing from the field of macroeconomics from sources like Shiller and Akerlof, as well as the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. As the Brafman’s write:

“It’s all about keeping valuations tentative instead of certain, learning to be comfortable with complex, sometimes contradictory information, and taking your time considering things from different angles before coming to a conclusion.” (p.178)

A superb contribution – providing encouragement to those charged with expanding the boundaries of what we think we know — and the appreciation we must resurrect for exploring the frontiers of the unknown.

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