Louisiana’s fiscal woes distract us and obscure what really ails us

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By Robert Mann

No reasonable, informed person would question the need for the current special session of the Louisiana Legislature. The consequences of losing vital state services — the result of $1 billion in expiring, temporary taxes — would be devastating.

This is a crisis. It’s as if our house is burning and the priority is to extinguish the flames and save the structure. An extended discussion about whether to renovate the house or build a new one must wait until the fire is out.

The problem is, in Louisiana, the budget flames never die.

The perennial impasse over the state’s budget — we have had 18 regular or special legislative sessions since 2008 — has distracted Louisiana’s leaders from other serious issues. It’s crippling us. And it’s robbed us of the ability to imagine and create a better state for our people.

Anyone with eyes to see knows Louisiana is suffering. We have so many deep, systemic problems that it seems our leaders don’t know where to start. The worse news is that, because of the never-ending fiscal crisis, they cannot summon the resources or energy to tackle the problems that plague our people.

Indulge me another analogy: Louisiana is like a patient with a chronic respiratory disease. Every week, he sees a doctor, who struggles to restore or improve his breathing. He prescribes new drugs. He puts him in new therapies. In his conversations with this suffering patient, the doctor spends 90 percent of his time talking about his labored breathing.

Louisiana is like that patient. We are so focused on the immediate — and justified — need to keep revenue flowing into the state’s coffers that we never have a serious, sustained discussion about the chronic problems that sap our state of its ability to thrive and survive.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why stop at Trump’s food-in-a-box plan? Here are some other horrible ideas the White House might consider

By Robert Mann

Politico reported the other day:

The Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the coming years by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, nonperishable foods every month instead of food stamps.

White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday hailed the idea as one that kept up with the modern era, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program” — a nod to the high-end meal kit delivery company that had one of the worst stock debuts in 2017 and has struggled to hold onto customers. Mulvaney said the administration’s plan would not only save the government money, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now … 

That package would be made up of “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food” and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.

At first blush, this sounds cruel, ridiculous and impractical. How would homeless people get their boxes? What if you have severe allergies to foods, like wheat or peanuts?

After serious reflection, however, I must admit the Trump administration has a point. I’m all in with Washington bureaucrats deciding what food folks in New Orleans and Baton Rouge should eat. But why stop at food boxes?

How else might we eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and restrict people’s choices by shipping them goods and services in cardboard boxes?

I have many ideas. Here are a few:

Why should the states spend billions each year paying teachers, principals, school nurses and custodians? And why should schools expend millions to build and maintain costly buildings and operate busses?

Let’s replace our unwieldy education system with “Classroom in a Crate.” Under this plan, the postman would deliver your “teacher” in a box that contains reading material for your child to study after he has watched the day’s lessons on a DVD.

(Before you scoff, remember this kind of thing has been tried. In 2012, Louisiana Education Superintendent John White and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal awarded $600,000 in private-school vouchers to a school in Ruston that taught lessons via DVD. Imagine the money White and Jindal could have saved by mailing those DVDs to the students.)

Under “Classroom in a Crate,” if a student qualifies for free lunches, his box will also come with a tin of sardines from the Second World War, surplus cheese from the Eisenhower administration, a package of crackers from Operation Desert Storm and a can of condensed milk from the Nixon years.

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Why do so many fearful Christians put more faith in guns than God?

By Robert Mann

Why do many fearful Christians put more faith in guns than God? We all have fears. We fear failure, debilitating illness or death. We’re afraid of violence. We fear the unknown, the other and, sometimes, the truth.

“Life is made of fear,” says Mary, the protagonist in the novel “Other People,” by Martin Amis. “Some people eat fear soup three times a day. Some people eat fear soup all the meals there are. I eat it sometimes. When they bring me fear soup to eat, I try not to eat it, I try to send it back. But sometimes I’m too afraid to and have to eat it anyway.”

Fear is also an emotion people of faith should reject.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) He also said: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34)

The Christian and Hebrew scriptures are replete with admonitions about rejecting fear.

“There is no fear in love.” (1 John 4:18) “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:17)

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.” (Isaiah 41:10) “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.” (Psalm 118:6)

So why, in this part of the word at least, are Christians the most fearful, well-armed people many of us know? Why do so many Jesus followers reject one of his fundamental admonitions about being afraid?

Put another way: Why do so many Christians put more faith in their guns than their God?

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Was anyone really surprised when Amazon snubbed Louisiana for its new HQ2?

By Robert Mann

Few, if any, at the state Capitol should have been shocked that no Louisiana city was among the 20 finalists for the massive, new second Amazon.com headquarters, also known as HQ2. The $6.56 billion in tax incentives state Economic Development officials offered could not persuade the company to bring its 50,000 employees here.

Imagine a mountain of money that tall being insufficient to overcome a state’s colossal economic and social problems. I would love to read the assessment on Louisiana that Amazon’s site selection consultant prepared for the company’s brass. I suspect it might look something like this:

MEMO

To: Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

From: The Site Selection Team

Reg: Louisiana’s Bid for HQ2

Louisiana has offered an impressive incentive package, hoping to lure us to the Bayou State. While it enjoys many natural resources (including the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River) and a vibrant and diverse culture, Louisiana is among the least desirable locations in the nation.

In Politico’s recent annual assessment of the states, Louisiana finished last for the second year in a row, based on its cumulative poor rankings in the following categories: per capita income, unemployment, poverty, home ownership, high school graduates, life expectancy at birth and infant mortality. For all the reasons discussed below, we cannot recommend locating this facility in Louisiana.

Economy: There is almost nothing about Louisiana’s economy that is attractive to a company like Amazon. Louisiana has one of the nation’s worst business environments, and its economic growth is among the most anemic. It has some of the lowest economic opportunity and ranks poorly in gender equality. Its worker environment is last among the states. Only one state has a higher poverty rate.

In WalletHub’s recent ranking of the most innovative states, only two — Mississippi and West Virginia — were considered worse. It’s among the least hospitable places for working moms and working dads and is also one of the worst states for millennials. It is the least financially literate state.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why stop at work requirements for food stamps and health care? Let’s go all the way.

By Robert Mann

I’m fed up with lazy, poor families who mooch off industrious citizens and waste our hard-earned tax dollars. I agree with Sen. John Kennedy: They aren’t entitled to health care through the state’s Medicaid system.

Unemployment and laziness shouldn’t be rewarded. Let them get sick or injured and, if they survive, they’ll better understand the value of work. After the heart disease passes, they will apply the lessons they’ve learned as they rush out to find a job.

If the worst happens, at least their orphaned children will have learned a valuable lesson: The only way society should treat you as a human being worthy of life is if you are employed.

And I agree with Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge: If the poor won’t work, they don’t deserve food assistance. Going hungry for a few weeks will not only encourage mom and dad to get up and work; the malnutrition and hunger pains should also teach the kids a lesson they won’t forget.

It’s just like Jesus said when he fed the hungry multitude: “Those with a job get a fish and a loaf.”

These humane, sensible policies have inspired me to propose some additional reforms:

Why should taxpayers educate children of parents who don’t work? Let’s begin each school year by turning away all children whose parents are unemployed. Forcing mom and dad to homeschool them will teach the kids the value of a job.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

My resolutions for 2017 (or, How I plan to survive another year of Donald Trump)

By Robert Mann

Although I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions, 2018 feels different: I’ll turn 60 this year. Our son and daughter will graduate high school in May and head off to college in the fall. We’ll vacate our house, which has been decaying for years, while it undergoes renovations. By year’s end, I hope to finish a new book.

It will be a year of change, promise and uncertainty. That might describe every year, but this could be one of particular and bittersweet transition. That’s why I’m making the following resolutions:

I will work to savor every moment with my children. I love a full, bustling house, so I dread the calm that awaits after they leave. Lately, I lie awake contemplating my unpreparedness for a new life in which they are not sleeping in their bedrooms across the hall. But they’re ready for the next chapter. It’s time they flew from the nest, and I resolve — after only a few tears — to celebrate this exciting next step with them.

I will strive to better emulate my wife’s capacity for caring and friendship. For more than 25 years, I’ve marveled at her remarkable capacity for empathy and friendship. Hers is not a superficial camaraderie, but deep, caring relationships with a far-flung collection of childhood pals and newer friends. As a spiritual director in the United Methodist Church, she’s well trained in listening and counseling people on their spiritual journeys. She is also wise beyond words. She has much to teach me, and I resolve to spend more time observing her, talking with her about what matters most and walking in her compassionate footsteps.

I will spend less time thinking about politics. In December 2016, I took up woodworking again as a way to focus my thoughts, apply my hands to creative pursuits and — most important — to get my mind off politics and Donald Trump for a few hours. (It’s funny how little you’ll think about current events when you’re trying not to sever your fingers with a table saw.)

After making a few pieces for myself, I began crafting simple tables for flood victims. Next, I made furniture for a refugee family and have recently finished tables I will donate to a non-profit that rehabilitates homes for elderly people. It’s sacred, prayerful work. Bending over a workbench for hours isn’t great therapy for a sore back, but making sawdust is a salve for mind and soul.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics, 2017

By Robert Mann

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”  — Jonathan Swift

It was a year that shame forgot. Sure, that might describe most years in Louisiana politics, but events of 2017 seem particularly shameless and worthy of disdain. Maybe it’s the Trump Affect, a malady which afflicts some politicians and causes the sudden disappearance of self-respect and integrity. That meant the possibilities for distinction in unprincipled political behavior were bottomless — and opportunities for valor plentiful.

Here are the 2017 winners of my annual competition: “The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics.”

Most Courage: State Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, two members of the House who tried to stave off the state’s looming “fiscal cliff” — when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire next summer — by proposing a series of modest, practical tax reform measures.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other leaders ignored many sensible recommendations by the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. Meanwhile, Stokes and Ivy waged a valiant-but-unsuccessful fight to instill a modicum of fiscal sanity, something out of vogue in Baton Rouge for a decade.

Most Cowardice: The House GOP Caucus, which resisted all efforts to address fiscal reform, stubbornly and dishonestly insisting that, after many years of deep budget reductions, the state’s budget woes can be solved by cuts alone.

“It’s hard to watch Louisiana fall on its face, which is what I do believe we are seeing at the moment,” Stokes observed last June. “Instead of solving our crisis and finding that opportunity, this Legislature has persisted — through three years and six sessions — to simply prolong the crisis.”

Shameless Ambition: U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who sought to burnish his conservative bona fides with a cynical attack on poor working families surviving on meager allotments of food stamps. Graves’ legislation would impose work requirements on those receiving food assistance, although most of them are, in fact, working.

Most Embarrassing Statement: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, for imploring President Donald Trump to intervene to prevent the removal of Confederate memorials in New Orleans. “I wrote him a letter and I asked him to look out your window, look at the statute of Jackson there at the White House because Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is next in New Orleans if we don’t do something,” Nungesser said. This was a suggestion too ridiculous and reckless for even Trump.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Christianity’s poverty of Christ

By Robert Mann

Let the historians explain how evangelical Christians lost their way, but it’s a sad fact that a large, influential segment of a major faith is unmoored from its foundational, scriptural teachings. I’m talking about those evangelicals who have religiously ignored what the scriptures say — shout — about God’s favor for the poor and his compassion for the powerless.

Too many evangelical Christians evince only passing interest in such matters, having abandoned economic and social justice in favor of political power and luxuriating in the smug satisfaction of a personal relationship with Jesus, who guarantees an afterlife without Jews, Muslims and others who don’t look or pray like them.

It’s not only evangelicals. If you want a sense of how divorced some Christian leaders are from their faith, I recommend a fascinating conversation between two prominent Christian thinkers — David French and John Zmirak — in the New York Times. The reason for the discussion, moderated by conservative columnist Ross Douthat, was to explore why Evangelicals overwhelmingly support one of history’s most unChristian presidents.

What fascinated me most was not their disagreement over whether Donald Trump deserves praise from evangelicals; it was, rather, the cursory mention of the biblical mandate to champion and care for the poor and powerless.

The discussion revolved, instead, around Trump’s personal morality and his support for the political rights of conservative Christians and their preeminent issues, including abortion and appointing conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even when more sensible evangelical leaders bemoan what’s become of their corrupted movement, they characterize the damage as abandonment, not of the poor, but of piety.Do you know how hard a Christian must work to devote that much effort talking about his faith and only mention, in passing, the poor?

It’s not that so many forget to talk about how their faith demands they treat the poor; it’s that they never seem to consider it.

Cases in point: Why are there not loud, massive protests of Christians over the obscene fact that Congress passed legislation that gives — at the expense of the poor and middle class — large tax cuts to corporations and wealthy individuals? Why are most Christians not enraged that, while it celebrates its unholy gift to the rich, Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire?

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Louisiana never had a governor who cared for children more than Kathleen Blanco

By Robert Mann

You can tell a lot about people — especially public officials — by how they behave around children. I’m thinking about the baby-kissing politicians who pretend to care but lose all concern for the kids when the TV lights go dark. There are those, however, who know tenderly cradling a baby or kneeling down to look a 5-year-old in the eyes for a quiet conversation is how you establish a true connection with a young person.SLU_Blanco

If you’re a parent, it’s easy to perceive who cares about young people. If you’re a close watcher of politicians, it’s also easy. And that is one reason I will always love former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. She didn’t snatch babies from their mothers, toss them in the air and make a show of kissing them. Her concern for children was deeper, lasting and sincere.

As most readers know, Blanco is struggling with cancer and has asked for our prayers. I’ve prayed for her, as I know many of you have, too.

History will judge her more kindly than did some journalists and her political opponents in the months and years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She kept fighting for Louisiana to her last day in office, and the recovery money the state received from Washington was partly a result of her fierce determination to fight for the state she loves.

When I think about my time on her staff, what stands out most is how much she cared for children and all that she did for them.

First, a personal story: One day in November 2004, my 5-year-old son was mildly sick. My wife was out of town. We had a press conference that morning, and I had several meetings with the governor. In too many workplaces, children are unwelcome, especially if they are not well. But I worked for Kathleen Blanco, so I brought my son to work.

I will never forget lugging this sniffly kid into the governor’s office for an hour-long meeting with her and other members of our senior staff. When the governor saw my son, she welcomed him warmly and hurried off to find a coloring book and crayons. She set him up at her conference table and made certain he was comfortable. And then we began our meeting.

Not for a second did she make me feel uneasy about having brought my son to work. It seemed like the most natural thing for a staff member of hers to do because, of course, it was.

That loving care for a sick child was and is typical of Kathleen Blanco. This mother, grandmother and former school teacher did not mouth concern for Louisiana’s children; she made it her policy priority.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why did being poor become a serious sin? (or, How poverty is the new pedophilia)

By Robert Mann

How did poverty, once an unfortunate economic circumstance, become a moral failing? Among conservative leaders — many who claim to be Christians — it’s often portrayed as a transgression against God and society.

The Bible may be full of admonitions to regard the poor as people who enjoy God’s favor and should spur our compassion, but the Christian cabal that runs today’s Republican Party regards wealth as the true test of godliness and virtue.

Being poor is a serious sin. Poverty is the new pedophilia!

Do these leaders really embrace this perverted theology — or is something else at work?

If you wonder why Republicans treat poverty as the root of all evil, just examine their policies: Pass massive tax cuts for the rich. Let corporations write our laws. Cut programs that help the poor.

That’s all they offer. And since most Republicans in Congress have many more middle-income constituents than millionaires, they need a distraction so rank-and-file voters won’t grow wise to how they’re being conned.

That’s why attacking the poor is so useful. If the GOP can pit the middle class against those in poverty, many middle-class voters won’t notice wealthy taxpayers and big corporations picking their pockets.

Among the latest practitioner of this cynical strategy is U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who champions a massive tax cut for the rich as he promotes legislation to vilify poor families by imposing needless work requirements on those receiving help from the federal-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Two other Louisiana Republicans, Reps. Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins, are co-sponsors of his bill.

Graves bases his work requirements on the false assumption that most people who receive food stamps cheat the system by refusing to work. If treating those down on their luck like criminals is what you want, then Graves’ bill is for you.

Graves also slanders poor people as lazy. “There are talented people across our country who aren’t pursuing the full potential of their capabilities largely because government incentives make it more profitable in some cases to stay home and collect welfare than to pursue personal growth and responsibility through work,” Graves said in a press release about the bill.

That is false and an ugly slur. Most poor people work more hours at their jobs than does Graves. Moreover, there are precious few examples of low-income assistance programs that discourage work. A wealth of research proves that a job is almost always more profitable than government help.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.