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July 10, 2011

Do Americans Care About the Debt Ceiling?--Skeel

The debt ceiling drama increasingly seems like two debates rolled into one. The first is the deficit reduction debate, and the question of what package of spending cuts and/or tax increases lawmakers should agree to. The second is whether we can risk reaching an impasse and failing to raise the debt limit by August 2. 

Americans seem much more engaged in the first debate than in the second. We’re told that the failure to raise the debt limit would trigger a worldwide financial crisis, but people seem remarkably unconcerned. Perhaps this is because the numbers are too big and the issues too abstract for ordinary citizens to understand. But I don’t think so. I suspect the disinterest is a legacy of the pattern of bailouts throughout the recent financial crisis, and the manipulation of the rule of law that accompanied them.   We now assume that warnings of financial Armageddon are always premature; there’s always an escape hatch.
If this is correct, the recent suggestion that the president might simply declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, based on the 14th Amendment’s statement that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned,” is especially pernicious. It underscores the perception that no crisis is real, and that the rules can always be manipulated to make a problem go away. There’s a vicious cycle here. The inability to persuade Americans that a crisis is serious may make it less likely that Congress will agree on a solution, and create even more pressure to sidestep this problem by bending the rules.
This is a dangerous game. It may not be August 2-- or whenever Harold Camping predicts the new end of the world will come. But one of these times the habit of repeatedly crying wolf is going to bite us.

July 14, 2011

Borders Redux--Skeel

The last thing I read before heading to Borders this afternoon was an email update on today’s bankruptcy news. The headline: a bid to buy Borders has fallen through, and it looks like liquidation is inevitable. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I couldn’t help noting that the handwritten sign about how the landlord “rocks,” and how rumors of our Borders’ demise are exaggerated, isn’t on the window any more.

Last Saturday, my wife and I stayed at a renovated, sixties style motel in the Berkshires on our way back from a lovely visit with Ruth Stuntz. There wasn’t a Borders anywhere in sight. When I learned that the new owners were English and had lived in London for many years, I immediately mentioned that I’d worked for six months at Waterstone’s Booksellers after I graduated from college in the 1980s. “Waterstone’s has really fallen on hard times,” the husband said. I was stunned. I remember Waterstone’s as expanding madly, and as the most successful bookstore around. Only later did it dawn on me that Borders was expanding madly in that era, too, and that Waterstone’s is precisely the same kind of semi-anonymous but high quality bookstore.
The commenters on my last Borders post who pointed out that its business model simply isn’t viable in an era of Kindles and Amazon.com were of course exactly right. But I’m just self-pitying enough to sigh a little when another product or place that I find irresistible disappears.  
It all seems to have started with Edy’s Vanilla Avalanche ice cream.

July 30, 2011

Winehouse and Freud--Skeel

It’s hard to resist comparing the two famous artists who recently died, the singer Amy Winehouse and the artist Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). In one respect, they couldn’t be more different. While Winehouse burned out at 27, Freud lived to see his 88th birthday. But both were risktakers who aimed to shock.  Freud’s risktaking seems to have been in service of his art, rather than for its own sake. With Winehouse, the priorities were reversed.

An obvious question for Christians is whether their art is problematic, praiseworthy, or some combination of the two. I lean toward praiseworthy with Freud’s paintings. “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” his famous painting of an enormous, naked woman, appalls many viewers. (Where is abstract art when you need it?) But it seems to me raise important questions about conventional conceptions of beauty, as well as the erotic intentions of art. And it’s an undeniably stunning painting. 
Winehouse’s music seems to me a closer call. I’ve watched the YouTube video of her “Rehab,” which says “no, no, no” to those who’ve tried to persuade the singer to go to rehab, a number of times this week. It’s a remarkable performance, and can be seen as poking fun at the celebrity rehab culture. But it also glorifies dissipation in a way that surely will be tempting to others in the future.

July 31, 2011

Jesus Loves Me and Day by Day--Skeel

Watching a local production of Godspell, the 1971 musical based loosely on the Gospel of Matthew, I found myself thinking of the similarities between “Jesus Loves Me,” the ubiquitous Sunday School and church song, and “Day by Day,” the most famous song from the musical. Both are simple, strongly rhymed, and centered on the singer’s relationship with Jesus.

I’ve always disliked “Jesus Loves Me.” My first memory of the song/hymn dates back to college, when an intellectual, progressive minister told us that Karl Barth, when asked to name the most profound theological insight he knew, said “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I couldn’t agree more with Barth that it all comes down to Jesus. But somehow he seemed to be slumming it. The song has always struck me as caught uncomfortably between the worlds of children and adults, much like the “children’s sermon” in a church.
“Day by Day” is even simpler, repeating the same lines: “Oh dear Lord/ three things I pray/To see thee more clearly/love thee more dearly/follow thee more nearly.” Yet I’ve always found it profoundly moving, and unavoidably worshipful.  Perhaps I’m betraying a little envy of those who came of age in the 1960s—Godspell has a distinctly 1960s flavor, at least to me—but “Day by Day” seems to get close to the heart of my faith.