Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New Economic Development Story for Louisiana

A few weeks ago, I was asked to reflect on economic development narratives at a Together Louisiana assembly. Here is what I said.

As leaders of Together Louisiana and our local, constituent organiza­tions, we are well aware of the power of narratives. We tell stories as part of every public action. We know that our individual stories come together to form a larger narrative, a perspective on reality that is bigger and stronger than any one of us. Narratives guide our collective action.

Narratives also guide policy making by government at all levels. Today we are interested in the narrative of “economic development.” It is a narrative we do not currently control. It is a narrative we must change in the State of Louisiana.

So let me lay out two facts to hold in the back of your mind as I talk about economic development narratives.

Fact #1: By our own research action, Together Louisiana knows that the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, known as “I-tep,” cost our local taxing bodies $313 million in 2000. That same program had grown to almost $5 billion by 2016. Corporate subsidies, so-called ‘incentives’ for doing business in Louisiana, are 10 times the national average.

Fact #2: Louisiana remains near the bottom of national rankings of states in which to do business. In CNBC’s 2016 analysis, states were evaluated on 10 dimensions drawn from a diverse array of business and policy sources and government agencies. Louisiana ranked 44th of 50 states. In Forbes magazine's analysis, Louisiana ranked 40th of 50 states.

Something’s wrong with this picture. If corporate subsidies in the form of tax cuts, tax exemptions and tax refunds are the key to economic development, why aren’t businesses and industries stampeding our borders? Why do we still rank so poorly as a place to do business?

Or, a question I posed to an elected official a few months ago, “Where are the jobs? If ITEP is an incentive to create jobs, where are the jobs? Given the generosity of Louisiana’s ITEP, we ought to be up to our eyeballs in jobs. We ought to have two jobs per person in Louisiana!”

For just a fraction of a second, that elected official was speechless. And then he said, “You’re right.”

The way we are doing economic development in Louisiana is not working! But there is an alternative. First, I’ll lay out the thinking that currently guides economic development in Louisiana and has for a long time, then I will discuss the alternative model we propose.

The dominant economic development narrative in Louisiana goes like this:

First, economic incentives in the form of tax cuts, exemptions and various give-backs are necessary to attract business and industry to the state, create jobs and generate economic growth.

So far, so good. We agree. We understand that to be competitive, Louisiana must offer economic incentives to business and industry.

Second, the story continues, “And just look at what wonderful companies we are. We employ hundreds of Louisianans, our employees do volunteer work in their communities, and we support charitable causes with corporate donations.”

And, yes, we appreciate the volunteerism, the corporate support of charitable causes, and the jobs industry provides.

But at this point we must begin to ask questions: ITEP is designed to attract new business and industry to the state and create new jobs. How can it be used to reward corporations for good behavior? How can it function as an incentive when it is used as a gift to those who are already here? What are the long-term consequences of converting an incentive into a reward for… what? Corporations doing what they ought to do anyway? Being responsible, reinvesting in their own business? Why must that be rewarded?

Here’s where the dominant economic development narrative takes a bit of a nasty turn. There’s a third piece to the story, and it is often hinted at rather than spoken openly. It goes like this: Keep the goodies coming or we’ll pack up our jobs and leave town. We’ll take our jobs elsewhere.

In fact, this is irrational. There’s no place to go with better tax exemptions and other forms of corporate welfare than Louisiana. As we well know, Louisiana has the most generous ITEP and the most overall generous corporate subsidy in the country.

Rather, this part of the narrative works its magic on a purely emotional level. It’s a kick in the gut. It doesn’t have to be said out loud. The implication is all it takes to frighten people who need and want jobs, and it scares the living daylights out of local elected officials.

So that’s the dominant “economic development narrative”: Subsidies must be offered to attract business and industry. The corporations thus attracted make great contributions to our communities, not only in the form of jobs but in volunteerism and corporate charity. Therefore, the subsidies must keep coming, the pot must continually be sweetened, or business and industry will pack up and leave.

The truth is, taxes and/or lack of subsidies are not why corporations move. It is rarely a factor.

Remember those analyses of the overall climate for doing business by state I mentioned earlier? Taxation and corporate subsidies aren’t even a separate factor in the analysis! They are presumably part of the “cost of doing business” factor, and guess what? Louisiana stacks up very well on the “cost of doing business” scale; we’re 7th in the country in both the CNBC and Forbes magazine analyses. In other words, just 6 out of 50 states are cheaper places to do business than Louisiana.

What does contribute to Louisiana’s low ranking overall as a place to do business are things like “quality of life,” where we ranked 47th in the nation in the CNBC analysis and 48th in the Forbes analysis. Louisiana ranked 46th in overall economic strength in the CNBC analysis and 44th in the Forbes analysis.

So the new economic development narrative we propose to Louisiana is this: Invest in us, the workers of Louisiana. Make us the best workforce in the country. Invest in our institutions of higher education; relieve the overbearing workloads and lack of support staff our faculty labor under and they will do the research that leads to innovation and improving technology.

Invest in our infrastructure, which is, after all, one of the first requirements for doing business. Enable police juries and school boards and sheriffs offices to keep enough of their local taxes to get the job done. To fix roads and bridges, because you can’t run a productive business if workers, suppliers and clients have trouble getting to it. To improve water supplies. To clean out drainage ditches so the south side of Monroe and the neighborhoods of Baton Rouge don’t flood with every heavy rain.

Invest in intellectual and cultural capital. Make sure all of our kids have equal access to quality public libraries. To after school and summer school programs. To reading programs that will ensure they make that 3rd Grade tipping point transition in their ability to read—the transition that decades of education research tell us is the best way to keep them out of jail.

Invest in essential job skills programs, like NOVA in Monroe, that takes people who are under- or unemployed, whom the education system has already failed, and moves them into living wage jobs with a career path and benefits. In short, invest in the workforce today’s business and industry requires.

Invest in keeping our cities clean and our citizens healthy. Invest in us, and Louisiana won’t have to give away the ranch to get business and industry to come here.

We are thankful for corporations that do business in Louisiana, employ our people and contribute to our communities. But we want the ITEP to do what it was designed to do: Attract new business and industry to the State, create new, quality, permanent jobs.

It can only do that if it is used as an incentive and not a mere reward for good behavior. We invite our corporate neighbors to join us in paying our fair and reasonable taxes, and in making Louisiana the best state in the country in which to do business by investing in us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

We renounce it!

This evening, Indivisible Monroe organized a vigil for the victims of domestic terrorists in Charlottesville, Va., and a rally against white supremacy and racism. I was asked to speak. This is what I said.

My name is Bette Kauffman. I’m the Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana and Professor Emerita of Communication at ULM.

Since the horrifying events of last week in Charlottesville, I have observed attempts on social media by well-meaning folks to frame those events as a failure of civil debate. These folks are against violence, and I am totally with them on that point. Violence is always a failure of some kind.

But their condemnation of violence ends with a plea along the lines of “can’t we just agree to disagree.” And the answer to that is a resounding, “NO”!

We cannot deal with white supremacy, facism and racism in our midst by agreeing to disagree! That notion defines white supremacy and racism as just another set of opinions in a roomful of credible, reasonable opinions—which we will consider, debate and perhaps work out a compromise between, or “agree to disagree.”

My friends, the day we accept white supremacy and racism as “just another point of view” worthy of our consideration is the day we have lost our way as a country. The day we “agree to disagree” with white supremacy and racism is the day we have lost our way as human beings.

I was invited to speak here tonight because of the collar I wear. To introduce what I want to say specifically to Christians tonight, I will quote from a statement published by my Bishop, the Right Rev. Jacob Owensby, in reponse to the events in Charlottesville.

Bishop Owensby said,
For Christians, [white supremacy and racism] are appalling. We are all God’s children. In Christ we are all sisters and brothers. Every human being possesses infinite dignity, and it is our right, duty and privilege to respect each person we meet as God’s beloved. Everyone is equal before God. Everyone should be equal under the laws of the land.

I ask those who claim Christianity as their own to recall for a moment your baptismal vows. In those vows, you were asked to renounce evil—not merely disapprove or disagree, but to renounce and resist it.

To fulfill that vow, we must name the evils of white supremacy and racism, call it out when we see and hear it, and take action—non-violent but clear and courageous—action against it.

White folks, we must quit standing by and leaving it up to our brown and black brothers and sisters to lead the fight! They have been waiting forever for us to come alongside, nay, to take the lead in fighting white supremacy and racism. It is way past time for us to do so.

Our Christian baptismal covenant ends with our promises to see and serve Christ in every human being, and to strive for justice and peace among all people.

That is why we must reach out to the haters in love, why we must fight evil ideologies with the truth of God’s love for all human kind. It is not always easy to see how to do that, but that is what we must do.

I will conclude with a few more words from my Bishop:
Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a racist ideology. Its presence in Charlottesville was undeniable. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to denounce this hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence ourselves.

And let the people say, AMEN.

Monday, August 1, 2016

God's Politics

Today Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith conducted a press conference in solidarity with our sister organizations in Baton Rouge and Dallas. I made the opening statement. Here's what I said:

Luke chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he goes to the synagogue as was his custom. He is given a scroll, and he chooses to read the following:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

After reading these words, Jesus hands back the scroll and says to the people, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Those of you familiar with the Hebrew scripture know that Jesus is quoting Isaiah, one of the great prophets of Israel, who is preaching the Word of God to God’s people.

Those of you familiar with the Christian scripture know that this event, recorded in Luke chapter 4, signals the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry on earth.

As this story illustrates, the call to stand with those who are poor and oppressed links Jewish and Christian traditions.

Today, in this year of election politics, I propose that in this passage, Jesus is laying out God’s platform and claiming it for himself. He is saying, this is God’s  mission, and I am here to fulfill that mission. It is a political mission in any age.

Today our economic system is creating inequality at the fastest rate in recent history. The gap between the wealthiest in our society and those huddled at the bottom… has nearly tripled in the last 30 years. (Wealth Inequality in America by politizane; on YouTube; based on research at Harvard)

Millions of Americans work, and work hard, often at 2 or more jobs, and still barely make ends meet. They are one major car repair, or one major medical bill, away from homelessness or the clutches of the predatory lenders. (ALICE, a study by United Way)

And the income gap is worse in Louisiana than in most of the country. Many are forced into an alternative economy. 

Alton Sterling was trying to feed his family selling CDs in a parking lot.

To stand in solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed, to seek to open the eyes of those who are blind to inequality and injustice is unavoidably political. It requires us to leave the comfort and familiarity of home and neighborhood, and join hands across lines of race, religion, and socio-economic status that traditionally divide.

In the words of a praise song we sing in my religious tradition, it requires us to get out of our stained glass boat and walk on the water... without worrying about getting our feet wet or how, exactly, we’re going to get to the other side.

We, the people of God, are called to do just that. And we are called to do it as peacemakers, without falling captive to the fear and violence that plagues our society. We must not be divided by the polarizing forces in our politics and in our media.

And we must bring forth real solutions. One of those is to move people out of unemployment and under-employment, out of minimum wage jobs, into jobs that will support their families.

Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith was one of the founding forces of a workforce intermediary called NOVA – New Opportunities Vision Achievement. NOVA helps people get the training they need, then matches them with employers who offer living wage jobs with a career path and benefits.

More than 80% of those who enter NOVA’s program, finish it and are placed in such jobs. NOVA graduates contribute approximately $8 million annually to the Ouachita Parish economy.

NOVA has already expanded from Ouachita parish into the Delta. We need comparable programs here in Shreveport, in Baton Rouge and throughout Louisiana. We need to use dollars recovered from Industrial Tax Exemptions by Gov. Edwards’ recent order to expand workforce development.

Today Interfaith, Together Baton Rouge and our sister organization in Dallas stand in solidarity and invite people of good will to work with us to free our State from the oppression of poverty, to free us all from the prison of racial distrust and fear, and to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor.

We refuse to be divided.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Felling Goliaths

I was recently called upon to do the faith-basis talk for an assembly of Together Louisiana to meet with Gov. John Bell Edwards. Here's what I said.

Reading from First Samuel, Chapter 17:

48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. 50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone.

That’s the punch line of a story we know well. We know that the Philistine in question was a giant of a man named Goliath. Hebrew scripture goes to great lengths to show us what a giant he was, giving not only his height, but also the weight of his armor and the heft of his spear. We know also that the Isrealites were afraid of Goliath, and that a stand-off between the armies had been going on for some days.

Then comes David, a boy on a humble errand, delivering bread and cheese to his brothers in the ranks. But he hears Goliath curse the Israelites and their God, and he presents himself to Saul to go against the giant. He tries on Saul’s armor, but casts it aside, choosing instead his staff and sling and five smooth stones for his weapons. And one of those stones finds its mark in a chink in the armor of the giant.

Brothers and sisters, many Goliaths roam the State of Louisiana today, Goliaths like a regressive tax structure that takes from poor folks and gives to the well off. Like hundreds of thousands of people who have been denied access to health care in the name of politics, and others who are losing access to health care by the starvation and death of the health care facilities they depend on.

Goliaths like a growing class of working poor due to the stagnant, poverty-level wages they are paid for the very necessary and back-breaking work they do.

Against these Goliaths, we sometimes feel like the underdog. We don’t have the millions of, say, a payday lending industry to hire a bunch of lobbyists to fight our battles for us!

But the bias of all of Holy Scripture is with the underdog! To go against the giants, we must choose our stones carefully. We must know where the chinks in the armor of the Goliaths are! We must be quick on our feet, and our timing must be right.

Here’s another image for you. Leonard Cohen is a Jewish Canadian song-writer and singer, and if you have heard his most popular songs, you know that he knows his Hebrew Scripture.

One of those songs is called “Anthem,” and the chorus goes like this:

Ring the bell that still can ring. 
Forget your perfect offering. 
There’s a crack in everything. 
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen also knew his U.S. American poets well. In fact, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who first said, There’s a crack in everything… that God has made.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the business of finding cracks in the facades of power, and chinks in the armor of the politics and policies that hurt families.

We are in the business of prying open those cracks and shining the light of day on the mechanisms of unilateral power, so the people can see and understand how to affect the process. We cast our smooth stone and bring down the wall that separates people from the decision-making process.

A few years ago, our former governor devised a plan—a tax swap plan. The idea was to eliminate income tax, a tax that asks those who have much to contribute a portion of that to the common good. And the income tax was to be replaced with new sales tax—a tax that asks middle- and low-income people to do more out of the less and little they have.

And the clergy of this state came together across the lines of race and denomination and economic status to confront the plan. It was to us a moral issue, but our moral outrage was not enough!

So we looked for a crack, a chink in the armor of the plan, and we found it in the harm the plan would do—not just to our people—but to small businesses as well. And we used that to enable the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry to stand with us against the plan.

It was the perfect small, smooth stone that felled a Goliath of a plan.

Today is a new day in Louisiana. That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have a new Governor who will meet with us! The bad news is we now have precisely what we stopped in its tracks a few years ago: We have a new penny of sales tax.

I will leave explaining the details of how that happened to those who come after me on the program. For the moment, I want to share with you a moment in our first meeting with Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The Governor was explaining his regret over the new sales tax. Indeed, he told us that he, as a devout Roman Catholic, would have to go to confession before he could properly celebrate Easter.

And at that moment, Rev. Wesley, who was chairing the meeting, gently reminded the Gov. that we had remained silent as the new sales tax was passed. The Gov. thanked us for our silence, and I believe that in that moment, a tentative plan for another half penny of new sales tax.. DIED a timely death.

We are here today, brothers and sisters, to develop our strategy to challenge today’s Goliaths. We must find the chink in the armor of our current tax structure, which is at the moment, moving towards being more regressive. We must select our small, smooth stones carefully, consider timing and look for opportunity.

As God is our witness, we will fell the giants that stand between us and justice!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My book!

Two of the sermons in this book reference one of the many "treasures” strewn about my house, specifically a little brown rock about the size of a meatball. It’s kind of lumpy and hard and drab. It’s chipped and cracked. But it has a heart-shaped hole in the side.

I have come to see this little treasure as a symbol of the human-God relationship. We too are small, lumpy, often hard-headed, stiff-necked, and wounded by the inevitable challenges and suffering of human life. In comparison to God, more like a little brown rock.

But we do have a God-shaped hole in the side of our tiny, frightened, wounded and often hard human hearts. Nothing can fill that hole except God. God put it there with great love and tenderness to help us know whose we are. 

And that's Incarnation and that’s what makes it possible for us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to care for others—even those we don’t like or who frighten us, to reach for God and to find God, right here on earth, in each other and in creation and in the very ordinariness of our lives.

I think you’ll find that theme running in the background of many of these sermons.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Who are you?

Last week I was privileged to be guest speaker at West Monroe High School's National Honor Society induction ceremony. Here's what I said.
Picture this. A young woman gets off a train in a small village along the northwestern coast of Spain.  She adjusts the weight of her over-sized backpack and looks around.

Nearby, several young people are conversing in the rapid-fire, rat-a-tat of native Spanish speakers.

“Donde está la pension (Where is the hostel)?” The woman with the backpack has addressed her question to the young Spaniards.

“Allá (over there),” they answer, gesturing toward main street.

But the backpacker has given herself away. Her Spanish is heavily accented with U.S. American English. And the young Spaniards gather around.

Where in the United States are you from? they ask. How did you get here? Why did you come here? What’s it like where you are from? Does everyone in the United States go to college? Does everyone really own a car? Do you have your own television set at home? And on and on.

In that moment, I realized something very important, something so important that it changed my understanding of who I was in the world, and therefore changed my life. Remembering it, and telling you the story this evening, still has power to move me.

Because what I learned about myself at that moment was that, in comparison to the young Spaniards with whom I was carrying on this conversation in my rather inadequate Spanish… what I understood was that in comparison to them, I was incredibly wealthy and privileged.

Now, in fact, what they could not possibly know is that I had taken out a student loan in order to participate in a study abroad program. I had very little cash in my pocket. And after settling my things in a room in the pensión, I would go to the local market and buy a hunk of bread, a piece of cheese, and a couple of pieces of fruit, and that would be my food ration for the entire day.

Nevertheless, they were right. In comparison to them, I was wealthy and privileged… just because I had managed to do a thing they would never in a million years do, namely…. cross an ocean to spend a summer traveling and learning in a strange land. Such an experience was beyond the realm of the possible for them.

We are all here this evening to celebrate the accomplishments of and induct a hundred young people into a National Honor Society chapter that already has a hundred members. Congratulations!

Each of you who has achieved this honor and all of your friends, parents and grandparents are rightfully proud of this achievement. Again, congratulations!

But my job is bigger than to congratulate you! Laurels are no good if all we do is rest on them. My job is to challenge you. It is to call you and push you and prod you toward the next big thing. My job is to ask questions that will shake you awake, just like the questions of the young Spaniards in my story shook me awake so many years ago.

Who are you in this world? Not in the eyes of mom, dad and grandparents, but… Who are you in the eyes of a world in which only a very small fraction of kids even get to go to high school? And in which an even smaller fraction finish high school? And the percentages continue to decline of those who get to attend college, and the lowest of all, those who complete college!

Here’s a few numbers for comparison:

According to United Nations data, in 2005, less than 25% of girls in Afghanistan and just over 50% of Afghan boys complete primary school. Yes, primary school.

In the African country of Niger in 2011, just 10% of high school-age kids is actually in school. In 25 countries worldwide, less than half of high school-age kids are actually in school.

How about college? Almost 75% of college-age youth worldwide are not in college. That’s as of 2011 according to data collected by The World Bank.

So…. who are you in the eyes of the world? Well, one answer is, you’re a member of a privileged minority that has access to education, indeed, to education that has been largely paid for by tax dollars up to this point.

And when it comes to college, because you are the smart ones, many of you will qualify for TOPS—Louisiana’s excellent and generous college scholarship program.

The more challenging question is, What are you doing with the educational privilege you enjoy? How are you going to use your privilege as an educated person to give back to your community? How are you as an educated person going to seek justice and peace in the world? How will you promote the common good at every level of society?

I’m not just asking how you’re going to pay the bills and accumulate personal wealth, although I hope you are successful at that too! I’m asking, What are you going to do to leave the world a better place than you found it? Because that is the responsibility of each and every one of us who enjoys the privilege of access to education.

Recently I was searching for something online, and I stumbled across a music video produced by an organization called “Playing for Change.” It begins with a street musician in Los Angeles singing and playing the song, “Stand by Me.” Then it shows the Playing for Change team going around the world collecting performances of the same song from Africa, the Netherlands, Russia, South America, Italy—and more. And all of those performances are merged into a wonderful montage of voices from around the world singing one song.

The electronic merging of those voices from around the world stands for the mission of the young men and women who formed and founded Playing for Change. They intend to change the world through music and their skills as communicators and the wonders of digital media.

I think they’re making progress.  You can check them out online at

But what about you? How are you going to change the world? How will you take your candle and go light the world?

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Year in Review: March

This isn't the best photo I made in March, but it is certainly the most special!

Me and Tom Tran at The Bean

Tom Tran is a photographer I met on Google+, just one of many with whom I have become online friends. But Tom is different in that he is the only one of all the photographers I've met online that I have now also met IRL (in real life)!

For the past couple of years, I have been going to Chicago a couple of times per year to get my "city fix." These trips are schedule around performances by Lyric Opera of Chicago and include at least one meal at a nice restaurant, perhaps a visit to an art museum, and photography.

In March 2012, having been on Google+ a few months and met Tom, he and I planned to meet and "photowalk" The Loop together on a Saturday afternoon. What a great time we had! From the beginning, it was as if we had known each other much longer.

We met at The Bean in Millenium Park, a famous Chicago landmark. You can see a bit of it over Tom's right shoulder. The real name of this highly-polished steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor is "Cloud Gate," but everyone calls it "The Bean" because of its shape.

We walked north to the Chicago River, where I took a photo that won a 3rd Place ribbon at Art With a View in Monroe in November of this year. We wandered around The Loop and photographed some of Chicago's interesting architecture. We stopped and talked over lunch.

Tom's story is amazing. He and his family escaped from Vietnam a few years after the war had ended. They were among the many who left at great personal risk via an over-crowded, too-small boat to head out across the South China Sea! But they made it, spent two years in a refugee camp in the Phillippines, and eventually came to the U.S.

And if Tom looks a bit familiar, it is because he played a prominent role in the movie, Good Morning, Vietnam!

I'm looking forward to photowalking with Tom and other Chicago photographers when I go back in March of this year.