She is Not Going to Kill Herself for You: An Evening at the Ballet with My Classy Wife

by Ben Carter in

Anyone who knows me and knows my wife knows that she is all class and I am all ass. It’s not that I’m self-centered, it’s just that I am always, always, always going to consider myself first. Class requires that you consider others first. That’s what Erin does. One of my good friend’s mom died recently. Erin asked if I wanted to send flowers; I considered it and said no. She considered me and my answer, and said yes. It was my friend’s mom, but she ordered the flowers.

You know that famous scene in As Good as it Gets where Jack Nicholson explains his love for Helen Hunt by declaring, “You make me want to be a better man”? That’s not really the way it is in my marriage. With Erin, I am a better man; I don’t really have the option of choosing to be a better man like Jack Nicholson apparently thought he did. Erin makes me a better man, whether I like it or not.

It should surprise no one, then, that my wife loves the ballet. It’s basically the classiest thing around. Growing up, Erin’s childhood aspiration of being a Solid Gold dancer evolved into becoming an accomplished ballerina. But for cruel Nature that robbed her of the last 8 inches of height, Erin would probably be dancing today.

Earlier this week, Erin told me she had won tickets to the opening night of The Three Musketeers. I agreed to go (and here I am using “agreed” in the loosest sense of the word possible). Though we live in Louisville and though Erin loves the ballet, we have not had the time or money to enjoy the Louisville ballet. In our three years in Louisville, I had not been to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

Even though my attendance was compulsory, I was genuinely excited to go. Mostly just excited that Erin would have the ballet in her life again. I’ll be the first to admit that living with me must be difficult for someone, like Erin, with such classy and classic sensibilities. I was happy that she would be able to enjoy a oasis of class in my desert of bad taste.


As the lights fade, I stop reading my Twitter feed, put my phone in my pocket, and realize—despite my fourteen English classes at Davidson College and thirty-three years on this earth—I have no idea what The Three Musketeers is actually about.

Three guys… Are they French? Do they have muskets? Why do I always think of them as having swords if they’re musketeers?

So, I spend the first fifteen minutes trying to read tiny text under dim light with Erin whispering helpful things like, “That’s Buckingham. The Queen loves him. They love each other.”

The music turns ominous. “The Cardinal is a son of a bitch.”

Look, what’s going to happen in this essay is I’m going to make fun of the ballet from the perspective of a yokel (me) who doesn’t understand the ballet. But, before I do, I want you to know I’m taking the easy way out. It’s easy to write a story mocking and dismissing and joking about the ballet. But here’s the truth: the ballet is awesome and if you don’t like it then a) you’re dumb and b) the joke’s on you. And me. It would be much harder for me to actually study the ballet, research it, learn it, and appreciate it and write an essay about that. Instead, I’ll just make some whimsical observations about a performance that deserves better and move on.

I turned to the program to learn what the hell was happening on stage. Here’s the deal with the narrative in the program: it is all nouns and verbs. 

The Queen has fallen in love with the English ambassador, Buckingham, and the Cardinal sees an opportunity to discredit her. (“The Queen is kind of a tramp,” Erin whispers.)

The Cardinal’s guards, led by Rochefort, mock D’Artagnan’s poverty. he challenges them, but they attack him from behind and leave him lying unconscious.

The ballet, however, is all adjectives and adverbs, usually amounting to some variant of “a lot.” The dances exist, as far as I can tell, to express how deeply in love the Queen and Buckingham are, just how devious Milady is, how controlling the Cardinal is. The answer to all of these questions is: a lot.


My beef with The Three Musketeers ballet is not with the dancing. It’s not with the choreography or the set design or the music. If this ballet sucks, it’s because the plot sucks. The Queen of France is married to an effete king. She’s in love (a lot) with the ambassador from England, Buckingham. In order to avoid discovery of their affair, she pleads with him (successfully) to return to England. But (and this is just where everything goes downhill) before he leaves, the Queen gives Buckingham a priceless, unique diamond necklace that had been a recent gift from her husband. To remember her by. This is just the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. That anyone, even the most love-infested teenager, would think this ends well stretches credulity. My willful suspension of disbelief at this point turned into a willful hatred of the Queen.

Long (long) story short, the Musketeers retrieve the necklace and return it to their queen just in time to avoid scandal. But, not before Milady kills Buckingham in the process of stealing the necklace from him in order to discredit the monarchy.

When Buckingham died, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. 

I think I was the only one.

Buckingham dies at the hands of Milady, one of the Queen’s servants who is secretly under the control (a lot) of Cardinal Richelieu. Five minutes before Milady stabs the crap out of Buckingham, she successfully steals this priceless, unique diamond necklace by spraying a perfume that made the necklace’s guards fall asleep. Why not just spray the perfume on Buckingham??? His death is completely implausible.

But, die he does because he allowed the Queen to insist on giving him this stupid necklace.

(As an aside worthy of parentheses, the necklace does make a really cool prop in a number of dances in this ballet. When two people are fighting over the necklace, they are both holding onto the necklace which makes some dance moves extra dramatic. Now you have all read the best ballet criticism I have ever written. “Cool.” “Extra dramatic.” Erin is weeping right now.)

When D’Artagnan and the Musketeers successfully returned the necklace to the Queen, she is ecstatic (a lot) and relieved (a lot) and grateful (a lot). Does she grieve the death of her English lover? Hell no. Does she (rightly) blame herself for his death? Nope. Does she dance around all happy-like? Yep.

“Well, what did you think?” Erin asked me as we walked out with the throng of satisfied ballet-goers.

“That bitch needed to die at the end. She should have committed suicide or something.”1

The overriding lesson I learned from The Three Musketeers is this: if you’re having an affair with a chick, don’t take a goddamn necklace from her that her husband just gave her.

But, I also learned a little about the ballet. Throughout the ballet, I was wondering how much artistic leeway the dancers have in a production like this. The answer is: not a lot. On the ride home (after I explained to Erin when she should and should not commit suicide for taking imbicilic actions that ultimately lead to my violent, untimely death), Erin explained to me that the flow of action (prologue, two acts, three scenes per act), the music, and the dances are all from the original. And, by “dances” I mean “movements down to the smallest twist of a wrist”. That’s canonical. The choreographer’s job in a production like The Three Musketeers is not to come up with original dances, but to ensure that these dancers replicate the original movements as closely as possible. As Erin explained, “you don’t noodle with Handel’s “Messiah” and you don’t change The Three Musketeers.

What was most interesting to me was learning this choreographer would know the dances because he had studied under a choreographer who had studied under a choreographer who had studied under a choreographer (etc.) who had learned the dances from the original, André Prokovsky. In this case, I think the choreographer studied directly under Prokovsky, but the point is that this is an oral and embodied tradition that survives in a digital age. That appeals to me.

Where a production can deviate from the canonical original is in set design and costuming. I have absolutely nothing insightful to say about either.

Apparently there is some leeway with choreography, though Erin has still not been able to explain to me exactly what edges are okay to fiddle with. For example, in the Louisville Ballet’s production, one of the Cardinal’s guards gets accidentally stabbed in the nuts no fewer than three times throughout the action. This, I’m told, is not canonical. I’ve got to say: this flourish felt a little patronizing to me. Each time the poor dude’s jumbles got poked, his eyes would cross, he’d grab his groin, and the audience laughed. But, I worry that this detail was added to appeal to the groundlings in Louisville. It was cute the first time, tolerable the second time, and overdone the third time.

In closing, I need to say a word to the men out there. Women, you can stop reading. Use the time you save to begin considering the times at which suicide might be an appropriate response to something you did to your lover.

Okay, men: I know some of you are reading this and thinking, “You know, I’d go to the ballet just for the hot, lithe young women with great legs in short skirts.” I hear you. I need to warn you, though, that there are also hot young men on stage. These men are incredibly athletic, definitionally sensitive, and wearing tights that are snug in all the right places. They support, physically and emotionally, the women with whom they associate. You’re basically taking your date to a moving cover of a romance novel. Just so you know. You need to ask yourself, “Is this how high I want to set the bar for myself?” Know that with every appreciative sigh that comes from your date as you’re sitting there in the darkness of the dance she is cataloguing the ways in which you will fall short in the future. And, know, too, that after you’re dead, she’ll be happy (a lot) just to have her necklace back.

  1. Now, I know that Western literature is bursting at its chauvinistic seams with stories of hysterical women dying or committing suicide when they didn’t deserve or need to. On balance, Western literature is still, I’m sure, a phallocentric endeavor. But, that was one cold Queen who got exactly what she wanted.

Eat the Young: Our Politics and the War on My Generation

by Ben Carter in

The recent debate over the debt ceiling has highlighted a broader theme in American politics, one that I don’t hear a lot of other people talking about. Republicans accuse Democrats of attempting to wage class warfare (poor versus rich) while Democrats accuse Republicans of attempting (to my mind, more successfully) to wage class warfare (rich versus poor). What is happening in America today, however, is not a war between the classes, but rather a war between the generations.

So far, old people have been dominating this war, mostly, I think, because young people don’t realize they’re at war.

The Old Rich

That America is engaged in generational warfare should surprise no one. Old people disproportionately occupy our positions of power. The average age of a member of the House of Representatives is 57.2; Senators average 63.1 years. Policies created by old people for old people are not new. After all, Congress has always been older than the voting public. But, what seems to be new is how exclusively those policies benefit old people and how that benefit comes at a direct and enduring cost to the young.

The reason we don’t tax the rich is because it is the rich doing the taxing. Forty-four percent of our congress members are millionaires (about forty-four times the national average of 1%). Fifty (of the 535) members have a personal fortune of more than $10,000,000.

Where Congress is both old and rich, it can be difficult to determine whether it’s waging a class war with its policies or a generational war. The confusion arises because the rich are also the old—people who have been around long enough to benefit from the miracle of compound interest and pyramid schemes like law firm partnerships. The rich are the old. The old are the rich.

Nothing demonstrates the cravenness of our elders like deficit spending. Baby boomers have been writing checks for years that my generation’s collective ass will have to cash. What did we spend our money on while we were running up these deficits? We blew our wad on the Bush tax cuts (benefitting primarily the rich/old), two wars (in which young people died), and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare (which, by definition, benefits only the old). The prescription drug benefit alone will cost us more than $727,000,000,000 between 2009 and 2018.

I know Keynes. I understand that, at times, the cost of interest on our debt is worth the benefit of injecting additional demand into the economy. Dick Cheney wasn’t entirely wrong when he proclaimed, “Deficits don’t matter.” (Remember that, Tea Party?) But, the deficit spending shouldn’t be any larger than required. The deficits our country is running are larger than they need to be because we don’t tax the rich nearly enough in this country. Currently, individuals in the top income bracket are purportedly taxed at 39%. I say “purportedly” because we all know they actually pay far less. Warren Buffet, one of the richest old people in the country, has famously calculated that he pays less tax (as a percentage of his annual income) than his almost certainly younger secretary.

I’m with Robert Reich: we should raise the taxes of those making more than $15,000,000 to 70%. This is 20 percentage points less than what those in the top tax bracket paid under Republican Eisenhower. Those making between 5 and 15 million would pay 60% and those making between 500,000 and 5 million would pay a patriotic 50%. This plan would generate additional revenue each year while allowing a significant cut in the taxes paid by those making less than $100,000 (a demographic in which most young people find themselves).

I’m not the only person who believes various revenue-raising measures are the best way to get our fiscal house in order. I’m not even in the minority on this issue. 72% of all Americans believe we should reduce the national debt by raising taxes on those raising more than $250,000.

While deficit spending is the most obvious example of generational warfare, the ruling generation’s failure to address the unemployment crisis is causing the most immediate damage to younger generation’s ranks. 23.1% of 18–19 year olds are unemployed. Those are the people with a high school education (or less) who are not attending college. Among those between 20 and 24, the rate is still 14.6%. Young people can’t find their first job. They can’t begin to build the skills they need to find their second, better job. And, when they do find a job, it’s almost certainly not at a factory with a strong wage and a pension plan. It’s at the mall. Selling shoes. Selling Chinese-made shoes.

Despite the private-sector’s failure to create jobs and opportunities for young people, the government has not passed any meaningful legislation that would either a) provide those jobs through a WPA or CCC-like program or b) incentivize employers to hire people, especially young people.


If Congress were committed to preserving tax breaks for the super-wealthy while we only wage two wars and unemployment hovers around 9%, I might agree that this is a straightforward case of class warfare.[1] But, that’s not what’s happening. While the rich and old tax themselves at fantastically low rates, our government is failing at its most basic duties to the next generation: educating them and providing them with the infrastructure (technological, economic, and physical) they need to continue to innovate and create. That’s generational warfare.


We are not doing what we need to do. We are not doing what we need to do because we don’t have the money to do it. And, the things we are not doing are largely those things that hurt young people. Everybody should be taxed as little as possible. But, everyone should be taxed as much as necessary.

A Pocketful of Lint

One fall, when I was a kid, I found a $10 bill in the pocket of my winter jacket. Six months earlier, I had forgotten it there and discovering it felt like winning the lottery. I liked the feeling so much that I still put money in my winter coat before storing it for the summer.

The gifts we leave for future generations are not much different. When the Baby Boomers came into power, they found the Hoover Dam, the Interstate Highway system, and a vibrant system of public education in the pocket of their winter jacket. Gifts from their parents.

When it’s my generation’s turn to govern, we will find in our pocket some lint and a receipt from our parents’ bar tab charged to our credit card.

The current government’s failure in education is the most salient example of generational warfare. Where I live, 25% of the students who enter high school will not graduate. In other words, 25% of the young people will not have even the most basic skills needed to work, earn, or think critically as a citizen. Until our dropout rate falls dramatically, I think we should be talking about tax increases, not tax decreases. Anything less is generational warfare.

The government’s treatment of college students isn’t any better.

We just emerged, barely and temporarily, from a manufactured crisis over the previously-routine decision to raise the country’s debt ceiling. I am all for reducing the deficit—I get that I am going to have to repay the money my parents’ generation is borrowing. I am offended, however, by Congress’s approach. Republicans refused to entertain any “revenue raising” measures as a part of a negotiated plan to reduce the deficit.

Instead of reducing the deficit by raising rates on the mega-rich, Tea Party members of Congress hoped to reduce the deficit by cutting $17,000,000,000 in Pell Grants to low-income, mostly minority college students. They ultimately did not cut Pell Grants (this time), opting instead to just eliminate federally-subsidized student loans for America’s six million graduate students.

The federal government is cutting student aid for a generation of students while most lawmakers were happy to benefit from previous generations’ generous support of higher education. Just 25 years ago in Kentucky, a resident could go to UK for $1,228 a semester ($2,408 adjusted for inflation).[2] Today’s student pays 89% more per semester ($4,564). A law student in 1986 paid $1,645 a semester ($3,226 adjusted for inflation); today, that student pays $16,021—a 400% increase.


Declining support from the government for public education.

In other words, Baby Boomers don’t want to tax themselves enough to keep prices for public education stable and affordable in Kentucky. They would rather burden their children’s generation with more and larger student loan debt. The University of Louisville just raised tuition 6%. In the past 11 years, Frankfort has cut Louisville’s budget 11 times with cuts totaling $150,000,000. That’s money Frankfort didn’t want to tax and that young people will now have to pay (with interest). That’s generational warfare.


It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that with rising tuition and a poorer job market, default rates on (non-discharageable, mind you) student loans has doubled recently to almost 9%.

Predatory Parenting

In a new and diabolical twist to generational warfare, old people have figured out a way to charge young people even more for higher education and sell stock in their student debt. Most students who graduate from proprietary schools (for-profit schools) will emerge with a debt load ($30,000) more than three times larger than a student who went to a public institution. Almost 90% of the revenue from these profit-seeking, publicly-traded companies comes from student loans. The percentage would be higher except for a federal law mandating that at least 10% of the tuition come from private sources. So, most of these institutions make private loans to its students for the final 10%, often at high interest rates. Said another way, in proprietary schools old people (investors) have found a way to capitalize, literally, on the loans young people take out. Remember: these schools exist because old people have failed to adequately support a public system of higher education system that includes community colleges. This profiteering is sinful—there are other words I could use, but none more accurate.

(For the full skinny on the evils of proprietary schools, here is the National Consumer Law Center’s report: “Piling It On: The Growth of Proprietary School Loans and the Consequences for Students.” NCLC is the best.)

The existence of for-profit schools is the best and most depressing evidence of generational warfare. These schools cost multiples more than their state-supported counterparts and graduate their students at a much lower rate than their state-supported counterparts. Contrasting proprietary schools with their “state-supported counterparts” is not even accurate, however, for these proprietary schools depend on public support in the form of federal student loans for almost 90% of their budgets. That is, these for-profit institutions are far more dependent upon state support then their state-supported counterparts.

According to the Government Accountability Office, after four years, 23.3% of students who attended a proprietary school are in default on their student loans. Compare this to 9.5% for public school students and 6.5% for students who attended private, non-profit institutions student. In other words, a student is between two and four times more likely to default on her loans if she gets suckered into going to a proprietary school. Our government’s continued tolerance of support for proprietary schools is a new form of equity-stripping, except, amazingly, old people have devised a way to divest my generation of our equity before we even have any. Parents are not stripping equity, but rather debt from their children.

Proprietary schools exist primarily as a front to shovel our tax revenue ( in the form of federal student aid) into the hands of investors (and by “investors” I mean rich people and by “rich people” I mean old people.) According to the NCLC report, one of the country’s largest for-profit education companies, Education Management Corporation (EDMC), is owned by Goldman Sachs, the company that has raised funneling tax dollars into its bottom line into an art form. Goldman Sachs took EDMC public in 2009. It has a market cap of 2.3 billion dollars and is currently trading at 17 bucks a share.

It’s not just federal money going into proprietary schools; it’s also the student’s own money—often money the student doesn’t yet have in the form of privately-funded (generously provided by the school itself) student loans. These loans, along with the federal student loans, are generally not dischargeable in bankruptcy. No matter what, these young people will be saddled with this debt forever.

Our officials (and by “officials” I mean old people) have failed to support higher education despite having benefited themselves from previous generations’s generous support of higher education. Worse, they have allowed a dysfunctional, predatory system of for-profit education to capitalize, literally, on their own failure. As a result, many students today emerge from college today as little more than indentured servants. For European immigrants during colonial times, a period of indentured servanthood typically lasted 7 years. For people in my generation, it could last a lifetime. 

This is What Happens

The generational warfare is not just limited to dismantling public education and capitalizing on student debt. It extends to the ruling generation’s failure to invest in new sources of energy, failure to maintain and expand the infrastructure we need for a 21st century economic revival, failure to pass the DREAM Act (a bill which only affects young people), and their failure to pass a jobs bill (any jobs bill) despite an unemployment rate of 23% for 18–19 year olds and 14.6% for 20–24 year olds. (Compare these double-digits to unemployment rates of 7.3% and 6.9% for Americans 45–54 and 55–64, respectively.) It is evident in their willingness to reform entitlements such that younger generations get less while their generation’s benefits are preserved. I will leave it to other writers to explore the full implications of generational warfare on these fronts.

I want to spend the rest of the essay exploring what to do about this war.

There is really nothing to do but fight.

I don’t have any new solutions or novel advice.

I think the first step is for my generation to recognize that they are under assault. I know that we feel a mounting pressure, a growing sense that our shared future may be growing dimmer. But, this foreboding has remained a nameless and veiled dis-ease. Let’s name it: it’s generational warfare. Naming a thing is the first step of gaining power over it.

Beyond that, ending the generational war is really is as simple and complex as caring a lot, voting, getting other young people to vote, getting involved in local party politics, helping people get elected, and getting elected yourself.

In this fight, the first thing we must recognize is that this is not a partisan war. This is not Democrat v. Republican. It’s young v. old. Both parties, dominated by old people, are waging this war against young people. Just because this is beyond partisan doesn’t mean young people shouldn’t recognize their allies.

My thesis is, given our annual deficits and inability to invest in the next generation, government doesn’t tax the rich (old) enough. Lawmakers (from both sides) would rather write checks my generation will have to cash. All but six federally elected Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never, under any circumstances raise a single dollar of additional revenue; Republicans will be ineffective allies in a generational war. (I recognize that some Republicans have, at times, shown a willingness to break from Norquist’s orthodoxy. Rather, we must acknowledge that the intra-party systems that exist in the Republican Party will make it more difficult for Republican lawmakers to support the kind of tax increases on the old-rich we need.)

In a two-party system, that leaves the Democrats. As a party, Democrats have folded so often on issues critical to the success of the young—from weak-kneed regulations on proprietary schools, to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, to the cuts to federal student aid. More broadly and more catastrophically, Democrats have allowed Republicans to define for the American public the terms of the debate over deficits, taxation, and the proper role of government in vouchsafing our collective future. Democrats’s failure on this front makes any policy change more difficult than it otherwise might be.

But, as much as the Democrats as a party have failed, Democratic officials individually seem to get these issues. Democrats advocated revenue-raising measures in the recent debt ceiling debate; many support the DREAM Act; they are committed to maintaining and expanding public infrastructure. Fundamentally, Democrats view government as having a positive role to play in creating the conditions in young people’s lives for individual and collective achievement.

Democrats have shown a willingness to try and solve the most immediate crisis for young people: the lack of jobs. John Larson (D-CT) wants to create a supercommittee on jobs with the goal of eliminating unemployment by 2021. This probably should have been part of the debt ceiling debate, but late is better than never… . Rep. Jan Schakowsky has introduced legislation that proposes to create 2.3 million jobs (teachers, firefighters, police, health care, housing rehab, etc.). She pays for the $227 billion bill by raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires and oil and gas corporations. This is what I am talking about. This is what punching back in the generational war looks like.

The ruling class has spent their time in power frittering away the gifts of previous generations. They seem content to eat the seed corn. When I say “seed corn,” you should know by now I mean “the young.” The rich-old are maintaining their power and standard of living by eating their young. No examples exist in nature of a species that eats its own offspring—those species extincted themselves long ago—but that’s what’s happening in American politics today. It’s unnatural, it’s cannibalism, it’s disgusting.

We, the young, need to stop them. Now.

  1. This is not to say that the rich are not also and simultaneously waging a two-front war against both the young and the poor. This is not an either-or proposition. I am not naive enough to underestimate the ruling class’s ability to wage both a generational war and a class war. Conveniently, the young are often the poor; this fact makes a war against both more straightforward. To some extent, a generational war is a class war.


  2. Excel spreadsheets for these numbers can be found here.


The Chains We Wrap Around Ourselves are Soft, but Lock Tighter Than Any Others

by Ben Carter in

Each morning for the last 30 days I have gotten up at 4 a.m. to write. This has never happened before. I have written all my life, but what I have are notebooks–lots of them–filled up 5%. I fizzle. My interests are too intense and too fleeting.

This time, waking up at 4:00 has been easy. Not easy physically, but easy because I have been excited by the prospect of finally living out my best life. My vision of my best life has always included writing and now so does my daily life.

For the past two decades, I have let my fear of sucking stop me from continuing to try. I have told myself that all of the best sentences have already been written and told myself that, really, there was nothing original or important left to say. (Thanks a lot, Wendell Berry.)

I have convinced myself that if I said what I felt I would disappoint my dad, that I would anger him and alienate him.[1]

I knew, deep down, that writing would jeopardize this elaborate ruse I have perpetrated for the last thirty-three years that I am intelligent, competent, trustworthy. Writing too much would reveal the ugly truth and people would know. They would know finally that I am not smart, that I am, in fact, self-centered, self-righteous, and selfish.

These are the things we tell ourselves. These are the things that whisper in our minds and prevent us from pursing our best lives. The chains we wrap around ourselves are soft, but lock tighter than any others.

No one needs permission to be awesome.

No one needs permission to suck, either. I think I’ve just become okay with the idea of sucking. Or, that the risk of sucking is worth taking because the risk of doing nothing, or resigning myself to something less than the pursuit of my best life is unacceptable. Writing has become for me the inch I refuse to allow my lizard brain[2] to take because if I give it that inch, it will unlock its jaw and devour my soul.

No one needs permission to be awesome. Especially writers. Especially today. So, I’m going to write. I’m going to write because if I don’t, who knows what I’ll do.

  1. Of course, if this were the case, it would have happened long ago. All evidence points to the exact opposite being true: that deciding to mince my words would, in fact, be the act that would disappoint him.


  2. The good stuff starts at minute nine.


Republicans:Government :: Atheists:Church

by Ben Carter in

Electing a Republican to run your government is like electing an atheist to be your minister: fundamentally, they’re just not fit for the job. I don’t want a member of the Flat Earth Society piloting my cruise ship. And that’s what we’ve got with Republicans in government.

Republicans believe that government is the problem, not the solution. They abhor government so deeply, they long to drown it in a bathtub.

We don’t call ministers who believe that God is the problem. We don’t call ministers whose most fervent dreams include drowning God in a bathtub. Why would we elect people to serve in government who don’t believe government can work as a powerful force for good in America and the world?

This is the challenge for Democrats and America more broadly: governing effectively in a two-party system in which one party’s guiding thesis is that government doesn’t work. Democrats must not only pass legislation that improves people’s lives, they must do it while being opposed by a party for whom government’s failure proves their point. This is the structural imbalance of power in American politics today. Republicans don’t actually have to do anything. Victory for them can be as simple as an erosion in the faith of the American people in their government to govern. When 45% of people (across party lines) say they are “very dissatisfied” with the country’s political system, that’s a Republican victory.

Politically and strategically, Republicans have staked-out a no-lose position. By claiming that government doesn’t work, that it can’t work, Republicans can win the argument even as they fail to govern. Supply-side economics failed? See, government doesn’t work. Tax cuts didn’t increase tax revenue? See, Washington is incompetent. Intransigence on raising the debt ceiling caused a downgrade in America’s credit rating? We told you: government doesn’t work.

Are you jaded yet? Are you cynical? Are you skeptical that politicians will ever do anything but serve the monied and the powerful? Do you think government only works for the beautiful, the famous, the rich, the jet-setters, the cigar smokers?

There: Republicans win.

The more Washington bumbles, the more Republicans win. The less you believe that government can function effectively, create opportunity for all Americans, distribute justice to the oppressed the more Republicans win.

Governing as a Democrat is like being on a road trip with a guy sitting shotgun who every once in a while tries to grab the wheel and run you both into a bridge embankment. So, how are Democrats and responsible lawmakers supposed to govern when their opposition wins when the process of governing falls apart? How can they build consensus when Republicans have every incentive to never consent?

I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I don’t mean them to be rhetorical, either. When government’s divided, we have two options. First, we can build compromises along largely Republican lines—welfare reform in the 90s, spending cuts in the recent debt ceiling negotiations. (Note how both of these bipartisan compromises reinforce the message that government cannot work.) Second, we can use Republican’s selfish intransigence against them. We can use what power we have to force vote after vote on bills that are popular with the American public.

Massive majorities support raising taxes on the super-rich. Massive majorities support closing corporate tax loopholes that allow 38% of the richest companies in America to pay zero taxes. A smaller (but a clear) majority support increased spending to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.

In a recent special to the New York Times, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg outlined the problem with our eroding faith in government to work on behalf of the public’s interest. Following Bush’s bailout of Wall Street and Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, “They think that the game is rigged and that the wealthy and big industries get policies that reinforce their advantage. And they do not think their voices matter.”

As people across the country told me, the average citizen doesn’t “get money for free.” Their conclusion: Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible. […] Everything they witness affirms the public’s developing view of how government really works. They see a nexus of money and power, greased by special interest lobbyists and large campaign donations, that makes these outcomes irresistible. They do not believe the fundamentals have really changed in Mr. Obama’s Washington.

What makes Greenberg’s article useful is not his diagnosis of the problem, but rather his prescription for restoring people’s faith in government. He provides a few policy positions that Democrats can adopt to restore American’s confidence in their civic institutions.

First (and most important in my mind), is campaign finance reform. In a separate essay, I will address the poverty of our cash-rich process and the damage it does to the foundations of our democracy. Here, it is important to recognize that having a process that allows shadow organizations to take millions of dollars from undisclosed individuals and corporations works to make the average citizen feel like the game is rigged. The more our political process makes people feel like they are not represented—that government works for the monied and connected—the more Republicans win. Republicans’ primary message—government can’t work—is reinforced by an electoral process that makes our democracy look like a plutocracy.


The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.

Greenberg closes his article by proposing additional policy areas where Democrats can show the American people that government can work: tax reform (transparency), immigration reform (responsibility), and deficit reduction (accountability). The whole article is worth a read.

Governing is hard. That much is obvious. But, electing Republicans makes governing doubly hard because they win, politically and ideologically, when government fails. The unfortunate reality of modern two-party politics requires the Democrats to win overwhelming majorities in Congress before anything can get accomplished. With compromise foreclosed, our only option remains building a popular movement that can send to Washington an overwhelming force of elected officials who believe government can—must—work to improve the lives of all Americans. Without overwhelming numbers, Republicans in Congress can continue to sabotage government for their political gain.

Writing about the Republican Presidential primary candidates, John Dickerson observed, “When you see government as a rampaging elephant, you want a candidate who can shoot the elephant dead, not someone who can manage to ride the elephant better." This is the difference: Republicans elect people to kill the elephant while Democrats want to throw some saddlebags on the elephant and cover great distances on its back.

Right now, Americans are deeply skeptical of our government’s ability to travel any distance for the common good. Until Democrats can show the American people that government can still work for everyone, Republicans’s message will continue to resonate and the American people will continue tolerating Republicans, hiding in the bushes, guns trained on our government’s heart.

A Few Words for Addison Parker

by Ben Carter in

Because we don’t say enough about people who matter to us, because we don’t celebrate people who live principled lives, because we should praise people like Addison Parker, I’m posting the letter I wrote to support Addison’s nomination for the Kentucky Justice Association’s Consumer Safety Award. The Kentucky Justice Association honored Addison last week with the award. I missed it, but I am told that J.T. Gilbert did a bang-up job describing the importance of Addison’s career to Kentucky consumers.

Dear Chairman Gilbert and the KJA Awards Committee,

I’m writing today to nominate Addison Parker for the Kentucky Consumer Safety Award. Earlier this summer, Addison retired after decades of service to Kentucky’s consumers as an attorney at the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalReD). During his time at AppleReD, Addison served Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens at their most vulnerable moments.

I know that the private bar does not always know what is going on with their brothers and sisters in the legal services community; you may not know, for example, that his legal services colleagues from across the state regard Addison as a titan of consumer law. Practicing in all corners of consumer law, Addison assisted debtors in filing Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, mobile home owners facing abuse, tenants facing eviction, and homeowners facing foreclosure. He has successfully battled zombie debt collectors, tax lien purchasers, and unscrupulous payday lenders. With bold and creative advocacy forged by a combination of hard work, meticulous attention to statutory and jurisprudential detail, and an unrelenting passion for his clients and his causes, Addison has upheld and expanded the rights of consumers across Kentucky.

When we think of “consumer safety”, most of us think first about seatbelts, airbags, salmonella, and flammable pajamas. If we have learned anything from this last decade, it must be that the negligently designed financial products offered to American consumers can cause just as much (if not more) harm to Kentucky families and our community’s well-being than a negligently designed physical product. Addison recognized this principle decades ago and began battling the powerful banks and financiers who seek to profit through recklessness and fraud long before the present meltdown.

While Addison’s laser-like devotion to protecting Kentucky consumers is admirable standing on its own, Addison’s commitment to mentoring and assisting other attorneys makes his contribution to Kentucky’s legal community truly remarkable. Three years ago, I began defending homeowners facing foreclosure at the Legal Aid Society in Louisville. I could not have been more clueless about how to help someone facing foreclosure. I soon met Addison because he chaired the Kentucky Consumer Law Working Group, which meets quarterly to discuss new developments in Kentucky consumer law. Afterwards, Addison generously spent hours on the phone with me discussing case strategy, explaining the nuances of complicated federal statutes like the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (HOEPA), and the Home Ownership Equity and Protection Act (HOEPA). Addison traveled around the state to co-counsel cases with public and private attorneys. He provided trainings to any group willing to listen, whether it was the Kentucky Bankers Association or the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

Unfortunately, clients of legal services organizations often expect that they won’t get a good attorney because they couldn’t afford to pay an attorney. Many of Addison’s clients came to understand that not only did they get a good attorney, they got the best attorney. An attorney that money couldn’t buy—and I mean that literally. Over his career, Addison passed up numerous, more lucrative opportunities to become a law professor, to become in-house counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, to pursue private practice, and to work in other legal services organizations. His devotion to Kentucky and its most vulnerable citizens is as deep as his contributions to them are numerous. I can think of no better or more appropriate way to honor Addison’s career-long commitment to Kentucky than by honoring him with the Kentucky Consumer Safety Award.


Ben Carter

My Fake Law School Commencement Address

by Ben Carter in

Here’s a speech I’ll never be allowed to give, but that law students desperately need to hear:

Good morning, thank you for inviting me to give the commencement address to the University of Kentucky College of Law’s class of 2012. This is going to be a real downer.

I don’t want to be this guy. 90% of this speech is just going to be bleak. I can’t help it. Most of what’s happened to you and most of what you’re facing is bleak. 10% is going to be hopeful. I want you to remember that. Hold on to that 10%, because we’re going to start with the other 90.

Here’s the situation: many of you do not have a job. Many of you have massive debt–hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Many of you–most of you–have no marketable skills to speak of, even those of you with jobs have been hired mostly for your potential.

It’s no secret that the prospects for graduating attorneys have never been worse. I have good news and bad news. The good news is: as an attorney, you can employ yourself. The bad news is: nothing in your education has prepared you to employ yourself.

If you’re like me, you went to law school because you graduated from college and didn’t really know what you wanted to do with your life. Law school seemed like a good idea because it would “teach you to think like a lawyer.” I didn’t know what this meant before law school, but I was tired of thinking like a Capitol Hill intern slinging tacos at night. “Thinking like a lawyer” had the added bonus of the tantalizing lure of exclusivity. I could join a club and, once in, the mysteries of society would be revealed to me.

In fact, in my admissions essay, I explained that because our culture is a language I expected to learn its grammar in law school.

I didn’t.

And I didn’t learn how to “think like a lawyer.” I still don’t know what this means. Unless “thinking like a lawyer” means thinking, “Holy crap, I only have one lifetime to pay off this debt. I need to get paid!”

As far as I can tell, law school exists to put future lawyers into debt and give them few practical skills in the process. Under a massive debt load and having little ability to actually practice law, graduating law students have little choice but to apprentice themselves in the highest paying job they can find.

The other function of law school is to make you feel okay about this situation. To make it seem natural, orderly, logical.

It’s not.

Learning to “think like a lawyer” too often means “coming to understand that what you do in this world doesn’t matter.” Law school is a process of divorcing you and your values from what you do professionally. Early on, you learn that you are not your client, that you are not what you do. Law school teaches you to think of yourself as merely a participant in an adversarial system. This is not a valueless position. “Participating in an adversarial system” is framed as a higher good than actual good.

You have been told that representing poor people is good because “everyone needs representation.” The reason poor people need representation, you’re told, is because our system cannot work if both sides are not represented. You are not told that poor people need representation because poor people are vulnerable, because they’re more likely to be preyed upon, because they have blood and sinew, mother and sons.

Maybe things have changed, but during my 3 years of law school I was never once asked to consider the law’s role in keeping people poor. We are rarely asked to look behind the law; rather, we are taught to get the black letter law and get out.

Don’t ask why the law is what it is. Just learn what it is and move on.

For those of you who think that being a good lawyer, that thinking like a lawyer, simply requires you to spot the issue, know the rule, apply the rule, and come to a conclusion, I am truly sorry for you. For those of you who went to law school hoping to learn how to meld your values with the practical skills lawyers need to help their clients, I am truly sorry.

For those of you who came to law school to “make a difference” or “fight the good fight” being told that you are merely a “participant in an adversarial system” is a violent challenge to your worldview. If you were miserable in law school, I want you to consider the possibility that this confrontation with this amoral vision of the lawyer’s role in society is partly to blame for that misery.

Being told that it doesn’t really matter what side you’re on is enough to jade just about anyone.

You are not the same person as the person you were 3 years ago. Ask yourself if you are more jaded now than you were before. Ask yourself if you feel less excited about the work you want to do in the world now than you did before. Ask yourself if you think your estimation of the difference you can make in this world has diminished in the last 3 years.

If you feel jaded, if you feel a lack of enthusiasm for the work you are about to do, I want you to consider the possibility that law school is partly to blame. Your challenge now is to learn how to be yourself. What I really mean is your challenge now is to remember how to be yourself. Remember who you were before you viewed yourself as a participant in an adversarial system, before you were told that what you are is a hired gun, a mercenary.

If it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, then that’s what you are: a mercenary. If you view yourself as merely a participant in an adversarial system, than a rational self-maximizer in that system will side with the moneyed every time. Choosing sides only requires learning which side can pay you the highest hourly rate.

What an awful lesson, but it’s one of law school’s most important lesson. It will provide many of you a lot of comfort.

I am here to tell you that you’re more than a mercenary, that choosing sides because of your values, because it’s “who you are” is okay. It’s more than okay. It’s a sign of being human.

I am here to talk to the people who think it still matters what they do on this Earth.

Before I talk about what to do now–now that you’re in debt and facing uncertain job prospects– I want to talk about what should have happened in law school, what should be happening now.

In law school, you should’ve spent your first year developing the practical skills you will need as a lawyer: writing, yes, speaking, yes, but also the active listening you will need to use with your clients and your partners. You should’ve been taught in contexts that simultaneously taught you the real world effect of civil and criminal procedure, contracts, constitutional law.

You should’ve spent your second year apprenticing with practicing attorneys during the day and learning the nuts and bolts of running a law office (accounting, technology, ethics, advertising, Getting Things Done) in the evening.

In your third year, you should’ve taken jurisprudence, electives, classes that encouraged you to reflect on the sociological forces that mold the law, and classes that asked you to confront emerging challenges to our society in the 21st century. Classes that explore modern problems and the potential for lawyers and the law to be part of a solution: prescription drug abuse, the foreclosure crisis, jail overcrowding, immigration. The solutions to these problems probably won’t come from winning a case in court; they’ll come from focused policy research, community organizing, lobbying, and legislation. Law school did not prepare you for this work.

We’re talking about what should have happened. What should have happened is that you should have spent about one-third what you did on law school. Your law school debt should be 33% of what it is. That’s the way it used to be. College is now 3 times more expensive than it was 30 years ago. It’s more expensive in large part because for decades your parents have tolerated declining support for public education, preferring instead to keep their taxes as low as possible. The debt you will be living with for decades is just a small piece of a larger generational war being waged in America today.

If your mom or dad is an attorney, chances are their debt load was far less than what yours is. A law student in 1986 paid $1,645 a semester ($3,226 adjusted for inflation); today, that student pays $16,021—a 400% increase.

Your debt has real implications for the kind of job you can take after law school and your first job has real implications for the kind of expertise and experience you develop. In other words, your debt will dictate who you are and what work you do.


Unless you commit today to live as frugally as possible for as long as it takes to have the financial freedom to pursue the work to which you feel called. Your job is to get out of debt as quickly as possible. Get out of your job as much learning and experience as possible, but get out.

You are not a mercenary. You choose sides because you care who wins. Because it matters who wins. Because if your client doesn’t win, justice isn’t done. You are not some cog in a justice-dispensing machine. You are a human being. You have values. You know right and wrong. You have a compassion for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the marginalized that compels you to act. You have a God whose claims on your life are undeniable.

Law school taught you to forget yourself and ignore others. It encouraged you to divorce yourself from what you do. This is why so many lawyers are unhappy. I believe we are on Earth to do good work, to alleviate suffering, and seek justice for the oppressed. I believe that what we do matters.

The bad news is you are in debt and facing the worst economy in human memory. The good news is that if you can remember yourself and live frugally, there is no limit to the amount of good work you can do with your law degree. Law school was a miserable experience for me, but being a lawyer is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. And fun!

What a joy, what a blessing it is to be a lawyer, to have the power to bring wrong-doers to court and seek justice for your clients. To have a loving family and meaningful work to do: can we reasonably ask for anything more from life?

Remember who you are. What you do matters.

A New Quality of Life

by Ben Carter in

People in the chattering class are finally starting to realize what my generation has known for a few years now: young people today will not have the same quality of life as older Americans enjoyed and are enjoying.

When people fret over some future quality of life benchmark we are supposed to achieve, it is clear that what they envision is “more of what we’ve got.” They want my generation to enjoy more of what they’ve enjoyed. A “better quality of life” for these hand-wringers just means jamming down the accelerator.


People in my generation, understanding that we aren’t going to go where our parents have been, are beginning to ask each other, “What if we didn’t want to go there anyway?” What if we’re better than what our parents had planned for us? What if our parents’ “quality of life” is a pig in a poke?

Here is what our parents’ generation has enjoyed and overseen during its heyday:

  • Obesity and an explosion of first-world health problems (diabetes, heart disease, cancer).

  • They’ve fallen into the two-income trap —their “quality of life” based on the inherently tenuous proposition of both partner’s incomes being necessary to making the family’s nut each month. Many in the financial services sector have profited from pushing (or at least covering up) the two-income trap. Beyond that, their “quality of life” has been based on the availability of cheap debt and fanciful home values.

  • They’ve allowed many in their generation to be bankrupted by medical debt by failing to build an affordable health insurance infrastructure in this country.

  • They’ve watched America’s infrastructure crumble and allowed our education system to become second-class, even while building up massive amounts of government debt for their children to pay off.

  • They’ve participated in an erosion of community organizations and civic spirit; their cynicism erodes our politics.

Upon examination, it appears that pundits have been eulogizing a “quality of life” that never was alive to begin with. They might as well eulogize Huck Finn or John Galt.

Fewer and fewer people in their own generation enjoy the “quality of life” advertised on Cialis and retirement commercials (sailboats, surfing, vineyards, bicycling, granite countertops). Growing income inequality in their own ranks means that “quality of life” more often includes payday loan sharks, putting $10 in the tank, and using the Emergency Room as a first (and last) resort.

Their “quality of life” is a fifty year-old man swinging a sign along a busy road that screams, “We Buy Gold and Silver!” The string on the sign rests on his neck like a guillotine’s blade.

Their “quality of life” is a passing driver desperate enough to consider selling.

Indeed, much of the hand-wringing going on about diminishing prospects at achieving the same “quality of life” as our parents arises not from declining American greatness, but of an awakening from the older upper class from their fantasy. Having invested heavily into the idea that selfishness is a virtue, the Baby Boomers are beginning to recognize that the products of selfishness are not worth producing.

They have chosen enormous debt (both personal and communal), ecological devastation, growing inequality. They have demonstrated an inability to solve (or even confront) big problems (opting instead to grab what they could for themselves), and have overseen the growing power and influence of big money business interests in search of a sanitized, atomized, commoditized, isolated existence.

My generation has watched our parents grow up. We have watched their generation believe the advertisements that told them that if they were just a little less bald, had a little more money, had a little smoother ride, had a little less bacteria on the countertop… then…. then they would be be secure, be safe, be admired, be loved.

Our parents have mistaken comfort for security.

That fantasy has played out.

The generation coming of age now, graduating from college now, the ones who are looking for jobs in the worst economy in living memory, they know that a comfortable security is a myth, that love and admiration cannot be bought. They have witnessed the emptiness of materialism and turned away. Young people today understand that something fundamental has shifted in America, that the old paradigms have crumbled before new paradigms have been built.

They know it is up to them to build those paradigms. Young people want desperately to do something that matters. They want to give gifts to the world, even as they have less money in their pockets, fewer health benefits, and no pension plans.

Young people today understand that security comes from living in the world, not trying to rise above it, defy it, insulate yourself from it. It is an uncomfortable security because it accepts the limitations of human existence, it confronts the pain of life and attends to it.

In the face of titanic economic failures, young people have developed a kind of stoic faith that if they just keep doing the right things, the universe will take care of them. Though they will not express it this way, they have the kind of faith Jesus urges in Matthew 6:24–34:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Young people have learned (beyond all odds) that people matter, community matters, communities matter. They know that love comes from loving, not buying. They know that if we are to reach some gentle, golden promised land, we will all get there together.

We will not enjoy the same quality of life as our parents’ generation did.

Thank God.

Acting Faithful: The Only Way I Know to Become Faithful

by Ben Carter in

I cannot escape the notion that what we do matters far more than what we believe. This is an old debate. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the primary reasons[1] Protestantism exists today.

Sure, having both faith and works is optimal–two of the Buddha’s eight big things (known formally as the Noble Eightfold Path) are right understanding and right action. Martin Luther, the man largely responsible for the sola fide doctrine in the first place even recognized that

“Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

In Martin Luther’s view, faith leads inexorably to good works. Good works are the measure of faith: Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. Same as the Buddha: right understanding is the foundation of right intention and, next, right action. I really love what (I just found out) Scottish theologian John Murray said,

Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6).

I recognize that this is a very nuanced area; I feel myself wanting to set up an antinomian straw man that I can knock down in service of my point that what you and I do on this earth matters. Instead of doing that, let me tell you a couple reasons why I think the church gets it wrong if we insist on faith instead of insisting on action.

I am, therefore I choose

I believe that suffering and pain exist because God allows them to. Given God’s omnipotence, God could easily have created a world in which God’s creations were automatons incapable of either wrong thought or wrong action, capable only of embodying God’s will 24/7. But, that’s (clearly) not what has happened. Most suffering and pain exist because of very human failures: greed, selfishness, cowardliness. Failures God allows us.

The implications of this are enormous. Suffering, injustice, oppression, pain–all are abhorrent to God. But, more abhorrent would be a world without agency. Choice, then, has to serve as the justification for all of life’s pain, all of the systemic inequalities that bestow riches and inflicts poverty. For God,[2] your freedom to believe and do as you please is everything. Or, if not everything, at least worth suffering for.

Freedom appears foundational to God’s creation. Everything flows from the primacy of freedom. What we do with that freedom matters. And, what I’m trying to say is that I think the real inquiry is what we do, not what we believe.

Would you rather live in a world in which everyone believed in Jesus or one in which everyone behaved like Jesus? Which do you think God would prefer?

I know that for Martin Luther and other nuanced protestants, separating belief from action is difficult if not impossible, but I’m not that sophisticated. For me, I’m trying to figure out whether if you had to choose between either belief or action, which would you choose as the modality that mattered more?

God decided to make this Earth one on which humans could inflict enormous suffering, unthinkable injustice, upon each other. Clearly, to God, freedom to act matters. It matters terribly. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that for God, choice is the foundational rock on which Creation rests.

For humans, choosing is inescapable: I am, therefore I choose. All day. Every day. Even the most mundane choices–where I eat, where I bank, what I drive, whether I drive–matter. These choices either foster humane, just relationships and systems or they reinforce systems that oppress and profit from pain. These things matter to God. We exist to make these choices, to act.

The only justification for suffering that makes any sense to me is that it exists because our freedom to act is more important than human suffering. Considering the cumulative amount of past, present, and future suffering on Earth, it’s on us to act with wisdom, compassion, and love. If we do not, all the suffering is for naught; the cruelty of the situation becomes overwhelming.

Do Justice

Second, in my experience, faith is the product of action, not the other way around. Asking people to believe first then act is backwards.

For me (and I suspect for a lot of people), the only way I have ever found faith is by backing into it. Do something that is a gift for someone else, act small against large injustice, especially act alongside someone else–WHAM! …there’s God. God wasn’t there before, but God’s here now. Faith is a constant process of backing up. Act, then believe. Faith can’t be thought, it has to be done.

I reject a model for right action that says first you believe, then the actions based on that right belief will be holy.


You give a hungry guy a peanut butter sandwich–that act is holy whether you believe in Jesus or not.

Elevating belief over act forecloses participation in the physical and spiritual life of a church for many modern Americans. Telling people, “First you must believe in all this blood and body stuff, then the good works count” drives a wedge between the church and many people who want desperately to participate in their neighbors’ lives, to make a difference in their neighbors lives and have their lives reciprocally enriched, deepened, challenged.

It says to people, “We can help you think your way out of that paper bag.”

Young people don’t want to think, they want to act. What is happening in America, what is happening on Earth is not okay. Poor kids grow up without a chance at success; drugs consume young people; people starve; they die from malaria; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia persist. Corporate power grows across political parties and across borders. Young people know that the economy they’ll inherit is one based upon exploitation of human and natural resources. They are not okay with any of this.

They want to do something about it.

They want some corporate power themselves, though they probably wouldn’t say it like that. They want to experience the power of living in a body of people trying to cultivate just systems, people willing to sacrifice, to work. The corporate power they seek is the power that flows from being part of the body of Christ on earth.

But you can’t say it like that.

You can’t say it at all.

You have to act it.

Young people hear a lot of cheap talk out of churches. They heard a lot of cheap talk from rich Christians when they were growing up–that’s why they’re not Christians anymore.

There’s a reason why Micah 6:8 is my favorite single verse from the Bible: it emphasizes action.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. It’s not something you can think. You can’t do it from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s what happens after.

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city… ‘Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?’”[3]

I don’t care what you believe about Jesus or his dad. If you cannot tolerate wicked scales, if you want to fight for honest weights, if you want to do justice, I am there for you.

If you will walk beside me, pick me up, I’ll do the same for you. You spread the peanut butter, I’ll cut the bread. I’m confident we’ll find faith together somewhere in the crumbs.

And if we don’t find faith, we’ll find each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.

  1. Sola fide (Latin: by faith alone), also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and some in the Restoration Movement.

  2. as far as I can tell… through a glass darkly and all that…

  3. Micah 6:9–11


Withdrawing from JPMorgan Chase: An Exercise

by Ben Carter in

Here’s what I’m ashamed of: Chase Bank. More specifically, I’m ashamed of my continuing relationship with Chase.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my dad got me a credit card from Bank One to help me “build my credit.” JPMorgan Chase bought Bank One in 2004, which was fine with me, because at that point I already had a mortgage with Chase–all my accounts were now with Chase, which makes online banking a breeze. Oh man, they have good online banking.

Up until a few months ago I had loans on two homes, a home equity line of credit, a business account (with an IOLTA account), a checking account (with sub accounts), a savings account, and two credit cards with Chase. I still have a lot with Chase, which is sort of what I want this essay to be about, but I have refinanced both home loans with local banks: First Citizens Bank and Huntington Bank.

I am uncomfortable with my continuing relationship with Chase; I am ashamed of it.

Idiocy and Hubris

My discomfort first arose when Chase started suing my clients at Legal Aid Society. For two years, I defended homeowners from foreclosure for Legal Aid. We hosted clinics for struggling homeowners twice a week: Tuesdays at 11:00 and Thursdays at 5:00. Each month, I probably talked to thirty or forty homeowners. Sometimes less; often more. Many of these people were also customers at JPMorgan Chase.

And they told awful stories. Stories typical to the foreclosure crisis–JPMorgan Chase is no worse an actor than most big, national banks in the years leading up to the crash and the years following, but its no better, either.

  • Homeowners calling Chase to apply for a loan modification only to be encouraged to miss a payment because you “have to be behind to qualify”. (You don’t.)

  • Chase losing paperwork that was sent certified mail (because the first set had also been lost).

  • Chase telling homeowners to pay a reduced amount for months on end to qualify for a loan modification, then Chase not modifying the loan, then Chase claiming the person was thousands of dollars behind and needed to catch up immediately or face foreclosure.

Defending useless and unnecessary suits brought by Chase took some (all) of the shine off Chase for me. But, it wasn’t just the suits. It was their suit, CEO Jamie Dimon, testifying in front of Congress, without trying to be funny, that financial crises are “the type of thing that happens every five, ten, seven years”.

How’s that for preposterous hubris?[1] Yet, I know that my decision to bank with them is a tacit endorsement of their actions and words. So, for the past three years, I have been squirming about my banking situation.

A Right-Sized Solution

It wasn’t just the suits or their suit. It was their size. Like most Americans, I find the concept of “too big to fail” antithetical to our meritocracy.

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,[2] E.F. Schumacher discusses the problem of the need for both largeness and smallness in human organizations. His goal is to encourage right-sized organizations for the problem the organization exists to solve.

What I wish to emphasize is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamor for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness–where this applies.

I keep my money at a bank that is too big for its own good. For our own good. I have known this for some time, yet the lock-in at Chase is enormous: I pay all my bills online (at; I can transfer money among my accounts at one website (; and my debit card and credit card are stored with hundreds dozens of online vendors, some of those debiting automatically each month.[3]

This is all to say that what I’m doing is wrong. Chase Bank is too large; it is a product of our worship of giantism. There is no reason that I should keep my money with one of the largest banks in the world. Any bank I would put my money in will be FDIC-insured up to $250,000 and I’m a long (long) way from having to worry about what to do with the next 250 grand.

I know what I’m doing is wrong, yet I have been lazy, complacent, compliant.

Continuing to bank with Chase is not just a bad decision because it’s a tacit endorsement of the bad acts of Chase and the hubris of its CEO. It’s also supports bad policy.

Robert Reich has articulated the need to limit the size of a bank’s assets as the only way of limiting the amount of risk to the broader financial system and world economy.

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again. In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks. In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so. (Haldane figures the value of that implicit subsidy to be about $60 billion a year for each big bank.)


As long as the big banks are allowed to remain big, their political leverage over Washington will remain big. And as long as their political leverage remains big, the taxpayer and economic tab for the next mess they create will be big.

By all means, give regulators resolution authority and also impose the tightest regulations possible. But Congress and the White House shouldn’t stop there. Limits should be placed on how big big banks can become.

How big? No one has been able to show significant efficiencies over $100 billion in assets. Make that the outside limit.[4]

Reich suggested this in 2010 and there’s been no move from either Congress or the White House in this direction since then. I think it’s safe to say that we can expect no action from Washington to limit the size of banks for at least another five years. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we don’t need Washington in this instance. We can limit the size of our banks’ assets ourselves–by moving our assets to smaller banks. Sure, it would be easier if 536 people got together and did something, but they’re not going to and we (millions) can. When shopping for a new bank, I will ask whether they have assets exceeding $100 billion. If they do, that’s a deal breaker, ladies.

Why Doing Something Matters

The problem with continuing to lend my money to Chase (and allow them to lend me money), is that I believe that decisions about money–how you make it, how you spend it, how you save it–are fundamentally moral decisions.

Growing up, my dad had a coffee mug that said, “Talk is cheap.” On the other side of the mug, it said, “Until you hire a lawyer.” He had to explain the joke to me. Now, even though I’m a lawyer, I think talk is always cheap. I guess you could say I’m a James man:

Faith without Works Is Dead

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14–17.

If you’re the sort of person who cares at all about the direction of our country and our culture, if you want something different than what currently exists, you have to recognize that decisions about what to do with your money either sustains or starves that vision. Choosing between buying a tomato from California and one from Kentucky has a direct impact on which farmer puts another tomato seed in the ground next year. Choosing to buy a new car or a used car affects how many new cars roll off the assembly line. Buying an ebook versus a paper book changes what the book industry looks like.

It’s the same way with where you keep your money. As someone who has grown deeply skeptical of the prudence of our giant banks, as someone who is outraged by their continuing rapaciousness and imbecility during the foreclosure crisis, I can no longer continue to lend them money and allow them to lend me money. If I want a different kind of banking system, I need to move my money to a different kind of bank.

Talking about this with a friend, he reminded me that any bank is going to screw me. That’s probably true. But, if I eventually want the option of banking with a bank that doesn’t screw me, the first step is moving to a bank that is going to screw me less.

But, my little bank account doesn’t matter

I have also justified my inaction by rationalizing that, well, my bank account is so small that where I keep it doesn’t make a difference. This fails for two reasons. The first is obvious: if everyone with a tiny bank account moved their money to a more just institution, the effect is not so small anymore. Now we are getting somewhere. As the Amish say, “Many hands make light work.

Even if no one joins me, it’s still important to move my money. Especially important. Failing to do so risks forgetting who I am, of changing who I am. Being true to yourself is a muscle you train; it knows strength or atrophy. I know that moving my money to a bank that doesn’t foreclose blindly on my neighbors is the right thing to do. I know there are banks that are run by men and women less blasé about the financial crisis it helped create than Jamie Dimon. I know that seeking a relationship that is, at minimum, less exploitative reinforces my values. The act of moving banks will remind me of who I am and what I believe. It is simultaneously a product of who I am and constitutive of who I will become.

More dangerously, failing to act in this instance will make it easier to justify failing to act in the future, perhaps when the stakes are slightly or significantly higher. Failing to act in the face of small injustices is how people learn to fail to act in the face of large ones. This thought, more than any, is enough to scare me into action.

I’m scared. Are you?

  1. Growing up, I had this sense, unspoken because it was so woven into the fabric of my existence, that grown-ups were taking care of things. And, for the most part, this was true as far as I knew. My parents took care of business. It has only been recently–far too recently–that I had the terrifying and exhilarating realization that grown-ups are just as clueless as the rest of us. Comments like Jamie Dimon’s were very useful to this process (commonly known as maturation).

  2. Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: HarperCollins, 1989, p. 70.

  3. There is not, as far as I can tell, an easy solution to this problem of lock-in. Especially among local banks. I have found some who seem willing to help you (manually?) transfer your online bill pay to their website, but moving still means tracking down all of the online vendors (iTunes, Amazon, eBay, REI, software developers, web hosting, bar associations, charities, and on and on), changing those accounts, forgetting a few, and having a few bills (how important?) drop through the cracks. (The bank that solves THIS problem and brings their solution to market? Wow.)


  4. Chase has over $2 trillion in assets. Huntington Bank, by contrast, has $52 billion and First Citizens has just over $300 million.


Wendell Berry's "The Nature Consumers" and the Roots of Distraction

by Ben Carter in

This fall, my friend Tim is teaching an English class called “The Contemplative Life” to his high school seniors. We discussed the class during a round of frisbee golf and I promised to send him an essay by Wendell Berry called, “The Nature Consumers.” I sent him that essay and this:

Tim, here is a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Nature Consumers.”

I read this essay at the exact right time at the exact right place. It’s the summer before I start at Davidson and I’m in Tennessee working as a camp counselor at the camp I went to as a kid. That spring, I had read all of Berry’s novels and short stories and created a genealogical history of his fictional town in Kentucky. But now, it’s night. The kids are asleep.

As I’m reading, the crickets chirp and nocturnal mammals rustle leaves just outside the cabin. The wind sifts through the trees. The camp’s lake is not far away; not too far to walk down for a solo swim under the slivered moon.

As a camp counselor, one of my responsibilities was to give a devotional to my campers each night. I used this essay as one of my devotionals the night after I first read it. This is what I did: after they’d brushed their teeth, I took my campers down to the lake, down to the dock where I taught swimming each morning. During the morning and afternoon, the lake was filled with sometimes-terrified, sometimes-stoked kids–swimming, rope-swinging, canoeing, diving. It was loud. Someone was always shouting, blowing a whistle, splashing. But now, at night, the kids whisper as we creep down to the dock, down where the night sky and the stars were framed by dark trees all around and where the creek frogs burp and chirp at water’s edge.

I read them the passage on page forty-one as we lie on the dock looking up at the stars.

It is maybe most of all that silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential of terror in it. It raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks a man what is the use and the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going. In it the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to him, the lives of water and trees and stars surround his life and press their obscure demands. The experience of that silence must be basic to any religious feeling. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head, one must bear a greater burden of consciousness and knowledge–one must change one’s life. If one has nothing in oneself with which to respond it would be unbearable. If the silence within the man should be touched by the impenetrable silence that ultimately surrounds him, what might happen to the thin partition of flesh and possessions? How might they have to be looked on then?

I read the passage about the boaters being unwilling to confront all the “old answerless questions of origins and ends” and then, together, we sit or lie down in silence for a long, long, long time. Pressed by obscure demands.

I think, in retrospect, it was the fact that we were together that allowed us to be silent. I never realized that until now. And, not to digress too much because this is not my main point, but I think silence is easier when it’s with other people. Sure, there’s the awkward silence, but I’m talking about a group of people being intentional about silence: Quakers, monks, zazen…

Over the summers, I read this passage to fourth graders, sixth graders, seventh graders, and sophomores. Regardless of the age of the boy, the passage seemed to resonate with something inside of him. We were all—for the most part—very privileged kids growing up in cities all across America who lived very busy lives. One of the things that was most valuable for me at the camp were all the opportunities that were built into the fabric of camp life that offered us a chance to reflect, to be still, to be quiet.

We had campfires every Friday night and Vespers every Sunday night where we’d sings sad, mournful songs and watch the sparks dash out of the fire and upwards. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” still haunts me. We would have church service by the lakeside every Sunday morning and watch the wind wave across the water. And, on campouts on Tuesday nights there was certainly time for Capture the Flag and for boyish hijinks, but it seemed like many times the night ended with quiet conversation, all eyes turned towards the glowing embers of the fire.

Looking back, I know those quiet times provided me the space I needed to become that man I’ve become. So, I want to encourage you and thank you for offering your students the opportunity and challenge of confronting all of the old answerless questions we so often and so willingly avoid.

It seems to me that any inquiry into the contemplative life has to engage two questions. The first: “What are the external factors that prevent us from pursuing contemplative life?” While I think it is important, strategically, to be able to identify the external forces pulling us away from contemplation and mindfulness, the answers to this question seem mostly uninteresting.

The second question is: “To what extent do we seek ourselves to avoid the contemplative life and why?” The answers to the second question are so much more important and so much more interesting. What is it within ourselves, what’s that piece of us that seeks to create noise and distraction from our own existence? This is what “The Nature Consumers” is about.

For me, the miracles of modern technology—radio and Twitter and cell phones and two-hundred channels of television—are simultaneously a problem and not a problem. They certainly add to the distraction. But, they are not the distraction. They’re not the reason humans seek distraction; they are simply tools of the distraction. In other words, these electronic miracles are the objects to which our psyche clings as it desperately attempts to avoid paying attention to some pretty uncomfortable questions. They are the symptoms and not the cause of our dis‑ease.

And I think that’s what’s so important about “The Nature Consumers”: it refrains from what could be a pretty tired refrain. That is, it avoids giving modern humans a pass because “modern life is so much more noisy than life has been for previous generations.” That fact is undeniable and it’s also not the point. Humans are not distracted because of modern life. Modern life is distracting because humans want to be distracted. I say this as a man who cares deeply about sports teams I’ve never met who play sports I’ve never played.

We have yet to come up with satisfactory answers for very difficult, very uncomfortable, and very offensive questions. These are the questions Wendell Berry poses in “The Nature Consumers.” “What is my life for?” “How am I supposed to exist in relationship with the Earth? With my family? With the community of human beings?” “What are my responsibilities?” “What happens when we die?”

If you sit not for very long and are quiet for not very long these questions will confront you almost immediately. Death is the ultimate cognitive dissonance–a dissonance our minds are bent upon and yet incapable of resolving.

Further, this isn’t the only intractable dissonance we face. We are precariously situated as a society: our human existence unbalances our natural systems. Our individual existences embody and often renew all of the inequality, injustice, and oppression of human history. These dissonances are growing, not resolving. The questions posed by these facts—the same questions confronted by previous generations—get more uncomfortable, more pressing with each passing year. The harder these questions get, the more inclined humans will be to quit trying to answer them. (And I think the act of trying to answer them is important, even if the questions are unanswerable. In fact, I think the act of trying to answer an unanswerable question, that struggle, is the answer.)

This is why the class you’re teaching is so urgent: the less mindful we are of how we are to relate to each other and to the natural world the more out of balance our relationship becomes with other people and with other species. We are caught in a vicious cycle and the only way to extricate ourselves from it is to train a generation of people to exist comfortably with very uncomfortable questions. Because the questions are so uncomfortable we run to distraction. Until we have humans able to tolerate the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings these questions will generate, we will never be able as a community of people to answer these questions and, most importantly, to act on their answers—incomplete and uncertain as those answers might be.

To summarize, I think all I’m trying to say is that the distractions of modern life are the logical consequence of our inability thus far to answer hard questions. We should see the trappings of modern technology modern life for what they are: symptoms and not causes. Until we can get to the underlying dis-ease we all feel and wrestle with and strain against, until we can humble ourselves to our own mortality, we will always yearn for distraction from the tragedy of our condition.

We will die and history, one day, will forget us all. Fashioning empathy and compassion and love in the face of an apparently futile endeavor is hard. It’s painful to know the beautiful things and places and people we love so earnestly will again pass again into nothingness. But, this is the only work that matters: learning how and why we must work to love one another despite and because of our finiteness. This is the work of being human. How can we live with and live out the futility, ultimately, of that love?

Is it too much to hope that we may one day rest within that love?