Boomerang Wisdom

I write this Medenblog as the United States sits on a fiscal cliff.  (On January 1, the United States avoided this particular cliff, but there will probably be another one in the near future.)  There is enough “blame” to go around at the fiscal cliff, but is there enough “wisdom” to see beyond and beneath the cliff?

Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short.  I have read each of these and recommend each of them.  I recently read his book, Boomerang:  Travels in the New Third World.

I do not know of Michael Lewis’ faith stance, but I do appreciate how he handled faith in The Blind Side and Boomerang.  In Boomerang, we are introduced to Phil Batchelor, the new City Manager of Vallejo; a bankrupt city in the State of California.

Lewis describes Batchelor as someone who “doesn’t come across as evangelical; he comes across as sensible, and a little weary.”  That back-handed compliment then details that he came out of retirement to take this job, but only after the city council had asked him a few times.  “His chief demand was not financial but social; he’d only take the job if the people on the city council ceased being nasty to one another and behaved civilly.  He actually got that in writing, and they’ve kept their end of the bargain.”

Let me continue with the vignette:

As he (Batchelor) talked about the bankrupting of Vallejo I realized that I had heard the story before, or a private-sector version of it.  The people who had power in the society, and were charged with saving it from itself, had instead bled the society to death.  The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public-sector problem; it isn’t a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society.  It’s what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis.  It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences.  It’s not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans.  Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom.  They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences.  Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans. 

…”My approach has been I don’t care who is to blame,” Batchelor said.  “We needed to change.”  When I met him, a few months after he had taken the job, he was still trying to resolve a narrow financial dispute:  the city had 1,013 claimants with half a billion dollars in claims but only $6 million to dole out to them.  They were survivors of a shipwreck on a life raft with limited provisions.  His job, as he saw it, was to persuade them that the only chance of survival was to work together.  He didn’t view the city’s main problem as financial:  the financial problems were the symptom.  The disease was the culture.  Just a few weeks earlier, he had sent a memo to the remaining city staff-the city council, the mayor, the public safety workers.  The central message was that if you want to fix this place you need to change how you behave, each and every one of you.  “It’s got to be about the people,” he said.  “Teach them respect for each other, integrity and how to strive for excellence.  Cultures change.  But people need to want to change.  People convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.”

“How do you change the culture of an entire city?” I asked him.

“First of all we look internally,” he said.  (pp. 200 – 203) 

The sermon shared by Phil Batchelor notes both the structural side of sin, but also the internal, heart angularity of sin.  As we seek wisdom in how we live (and spend and earn), we need to be reminded that faith matters.  May more city managers (and pastors and …) have such wisdom and insight.

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