Politics and Pessimism

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.   (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

Supreme Court front steps looking up

voteNovember 6 is Election Day in the USA.  One can wish that campaigns and elections would make us more hopeful, that change for the better is going to occur.  Unfortunately, election campaigns often bring out pessimism in many people, perhaps because of the negative tone of some campaigns.  Lots of fear mongering is done.   Many people feel campaigns have gotten more negative through time.    I would just note that throughout history, there have always been voices which have claimed that yesterday was better than today will be and today will be better than tomorrow.  St Cyprian of Carthage (martyred in 258AD) at one point in his life lamented the decline of everything in his day: the weather, the military, justice, friendship, skills and ethics.  [One can hear Ronald Reagan saying, “There you go again . . .”]  He no doubt would have found election time proof of the decline of civility and civilization.  His is a familiar voice we can find in history – things are declining. His lament about the declining fortunes of his time:

In winter there is not as great an abundance of rain storms for nourishing seeds as before, in summer the temperature does not reach normal oven heat for preparing the crops for ripening, nor in the mild season of spring do the crops flourish as they did once, nor are the autumn crops so abundant as before with trees bearing fruit. There are less marble slabs brought forth from mountains that have been mined out and are exhausted. Their mines, hollowed out, now supply less wealth in silver and in gold, and their impoverished veins of metals run short as each day proceeds. The farm laborer grows less in number in the fields, and ceases to be available. The sailor at sea, similarly, has vanished, like the soldier in the barracks, integrity in the Forum, justice in the court, concord between friends in alliance, skill in practicing the arts, and moral order in practicing ethics.   (On The Church: Select Treatises, Kindle Loc. 1408-15)

I do find the campaign process to be spiritually oppressive, and I see the fears, anxieties and anger which grow in people during elections.  And yet, I think this process, as much as I dislike it, to be a good sign for our country and humanity in general.  It is easy to imagine that life used to be better, but for us Christians, hope does not lie in the past but in what lies ahead.   As St Paul says,  “. . . one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

I used to think of America as an optimistic country.  American ingenuity sparked hoped.  The American can-do spirit kept us pushing into the future’s ever expanding vision.  The horizon was ever expanding and we were always pushing toward it no matter how far it kept receding.  Boundlessness seemed part of our attitude.  Of course, such thinking also at times contributed to our excesses, wastefulness, selfish consumption and rapacious greed.  What we need to learn to balance is the boundless hope with the reality of how our behavior affects others and our planet.  Profit is not always evil, though greed is real and destructive.  Concern for the environment doesn’t have to mean all consumption is wrong – humans need to live.  Both extremes need to bring humanity back into the picture, both need to consider how to benefit a growing population in a sustainable way.

I saw a bumper sticker today which read, “It’s easy to wave the flag, harder to carry it.”  I don’t know if that is a slogan of some organization, but that doesn’t matter to me as I’m not advocating for them.  The words express a truth.  Part of the burden for Americans of carrying the flag is democracy itself – and caring about the country and one’s fellow citizens.  The election process is messy and at times brings out pessimism in many.  It als0 is part of the burden of democracy, it is the weight of the American flag.  We are asked to choose between candidates who are imperfect and issues which are complicated.   I hope we will show that we are worthy of carrying that flag not just waving it.  Carrying the flag means  enduring campaigns, and working together for the common good even when we disagree on issues or solutions.  When we value each other as fellow citizens then we will make America great.  Look for politicians who actually care about their constituents more than their political ideologies.

Truly, democracy and elections cannot solve all our human problems, and sometimes contribute to them.  Yet democracy allows us to light a candle, not just curse the darkness.  It is a sign that we can change, that we are capable of creatively working together to deal with some of the issues confronting us, that we can survive our own mistakes, and that there is reason to hope that we can make some things better.   Democracy is not foolproof – the best candidate doesn’t always win.  Democracy is not omniscient or omnipotent but it can show us the need for looking at issues from different perspectives and the need for cooperation in order to produce better solutions.  It can also show us why we need divine help to deal with human problems.   We do need Wisdom of God to solve issues which are greater than our limited knowledge and perspectives.   We need that godly hope to overcome our fears and failures and to see potential instead of only our limitations.  We need the love of God to energize us to overcome our selfishness so that we work for a greater good.  Even if things are worse than they used to be, we can show up and care for one another, rather than simply despair.

Remember, O Lord, this nation and her civil authorities, those who serve in the government and the armed forces. Grant them a secure and lasting peace; speak good things in their hearts concerning your Church and all your people, so that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.  (from the Liturgy of St. Basil)

The Power of God and of the State

It is a presidential election year in the United States, which as I’ve noted before tends to cause a fair amount of angst in my fellow parishioners.  This year’s election has been even more troubling.  Often people are afraid what will happen if “the other” party wins the election.  This year people seem anxious and afraid even if their party wins.  Here is a quote from Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov describing what the proper power of government is from a Christian point of view.  All of the things we might think of as the duties of government have a spiritual basis.

“Here there is a direct analogy with evil. God does not suppress it automatically by his omnipotence. Likewise he does not suppress social inequality by force, but makes it a spiritual victory over the passion of possession. In extreme cases, public authority ought to intervene. However, the state is not called upon to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. Its task is to prevent the world from becoming a hell and thus to place limits against the progression of evil among us.” (In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p 88)

 Government, big or small, cannot create the kingdom of God on earth.  As Evdokimov notes God Himself does not “suppress social inequality by force.”  Rather Christ appeals to us to overcome our passions by voluntarily engaging in a spiritual warfare.  As Christians we should strive for a spiritual victory over our self-centered interests by making love our aim (1 Corinthians 14:1).  Sometimes the government has to intervene when social inequalities exceed what is humane, when the powerful behave inhumanly and the poor are dehumanized.  But he sees this as the exception, not the rule.   Certainly in history Christianity changed the all powerful Roman Empire, but did it without violence and without an election.  It was a change of hearts that occurred in enough citizenry to make a difference.

As Evdokimov notes the task of the state “is to prevent the world from becoming a hell.”   That in itself is no mean task.  It is of course made even more difficult if the election itself seems like hell!   The role of the state according to Evdokimov is “to place limits against the progression of evil among us.”   Evil however is not a nation with an army whom we can fight with conventional weapons.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…”   (Ephesians 6:11-18)

What it means for us is that politics is not purely secular with no religious element.  Evil is a theological concept.   Without God we cannot win that battle against evil.  Without God, we will never even be able to agree on what evil is.  But even with God, we are not going to establish Paradise on earth through government or armies.  We can resist the forces of evil.  We can work to make sure the earth does not become hell by opposing evil.

War: The Primary Cause of Big Government?

 I do in this blog write about things I’ve read that interest me or give me pause to think.   I read an article in a recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly which to me came at an anti-war argument from a different point of view.

Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute writing in The Independent Review, Fall 2013, “Warfare State to Welfare State” makes the case that conservatives who favor small government need to have a stronger anti-war sentiment since wars have been a major cause of an expanding U.S. government and the growth of taxes that go with it.   The American reliance on the military to do its foreign policy causes a need for bigger government especially in benefits given to entice people to serve in the military.  Historically, the expanded government caused by war never is completely rolled back to pre-war levels, and it tends to create new populations of special interest within the country which are dependent on the expanded government and who defend the bigger federal budget to protect their own interests.

In 1795, James Madison, an architect of the U.S. Constitution, wrote:

“Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Ivan Eland writes that

“conservatives should be more leery of jumping into wars.” War, he argues … inevitably leads to a larger government, requiring new taxes and vastly expanded powers that are only partially rolled back in peacetime. The Founding Fathers were wary of foreign entanglements, and many bridled at even the notion of a standing army. “War is the parent of armies,” said James Madison. “From these proceed debts and taxes.”

James Madison quote

Eland claims that “pensions offered as an inducement to soldiers during the Revolutionary War … eventually led to the 20th century’s massive federal retirement programs.”  The Civil War further expanded the federal government so that by “1910, forty-five years after the end of the war, about 28 percent of American men 65 years of age and older were receiving federal benefits.”

The income tax was introduced first to help pay for the war debt from the Civil War and then was revived just before WWI.  By the end of that war it was the main source of income for the federal government.  Eland argues that “World War I was transformational in bringing about permanent ‘big government.”  He claims that after WWI the government expanded its role by helping provide housing and employment opportunities for veterans.  Eland claims the government began in this time period to intrude in every aspect of American lives.  Eland claims thethe Vietnam War directly contributed to the expansion of Medicaid.”  

Eland has a long list of other war-related expansions of government, including bank bailouts (the War of 1812); price controls; government takeovers of industry; Daylight Savings Time (World War I); and subsidized child care (World War II).

The lesson, Eland argues, is plain. “Traditional conservatives recognized in the past that war is the primary cause of big government in human history, so they promoted peace. . . . That important lesson needs to be relearned.”

Maybe such thinking will help break the logjam in Washington political thinking and liberals and conservatives will find an issue they both can agree on.

In 1821, John Quincy Adams  said America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty.”  Something for all of us to consider – maybe we’ve come to think that America’s strength is purely found in her military power whereas the true strength we have in the world is not in dominating other nations militarily but in our citizens having a liberty free of centralized government dominion.   America was not the world’s military power in it’s first hundred and fifty years of existence but it grew and became an economic power in the world while military might existed in other parts of the world.  That is an enviable history that America might want to try to regain; for in recent years we seem to think our military domination is our only glory in the world.   It is a tail wagging the dog scenario.

The Statue of Liberty is our national symbol, not the Statue of Domination

Abraham Lincoln’s Rise to Greatness

Rise to GreatnessEach year around the American Independence Day holiday I read a book on American history just to remind myself of the great effort it has taken to create “America.”    This year while on vacation I read David Von Drehle’s Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.  A good summary of the book is found in the book’s epilogue where Drehle writes:

“The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of the slaves who were to be freed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of students who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined.”  (Kindle Loc. 6866-71)

Abraham Lincoln was a great man, and so a good book on a great man is a winning combination!   I really liked the book which traces the development in Abe Lincoln’s thinking during the course of 1862 on the issue of slavery, how to carry out the civil war militarily, and what it meant to preserve the union.  I felt while I was reading the book that I was inside Lincoln’s heart and head, listening to the opposing voices feuding, feeling the pressure rising as the decisions loomed ahead, and agonizing over how to hold the union together while at the same time resolving the very issue that made union impossible.  The varying, 0ppositional viewpoints and the building pressures on Lincoln were unrelenting.  Really, one wonders how he survived it all – the reports of his acquaintances were that it took a tremendous toll on him physically and emotionally.   How he worked to hold it altogether was amazing; somehow Lincoln guided the nation through very treacherous and tumultuous waters.  Lincoln who frequently offered pithy wisdom said:

“To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence.”   (Kindle Loc. 4834-35)

Lincoln wrestled with issues of the divine will, the will of the people, idealism about what “America” meant and is.  There were countless forces over which he had no influence let alone control, and he mused over the nature of life frequently.

“Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk one day in September, “his mind … burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind. All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.” He put down his pen. Perhaps he was interrupted, or ran out of time, because he seems to have stopped abruptly. The final period at the end of his meditation was jabbed with such velocity that it looked more like a dash. Clearly, he wasn’t finished, because the last sentence led so obviously, so irresistibly, to the next question: Why? Toward what end was this uncontrollable force moving? Nicolay and Hay, who discovered this unfinished rumination long after the president had folded it in half, and half again, observed that it had not been intended for others; it was Lincoln’s way of ordering his own thoughts. Yet these few lines suggest a first draft of what would become Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In that magnificent speech, delivered two and a half years later, he completed the chain of his logic. The contest proceeds, the president declared then, because “American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” And because the offense was too large and too grave to be removed without suffering, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.”   (Kindle Loc. 4839-67)

Such was the nature of the thinking of the man who held the presidency during this period of great trial for the United States.  Lincoln took diverse and irreconcilable  ideas and weighed them in his mind ever searching for what the right path was for the country.  He made choices in the most difficult of circumstances.  He was not always right but he labored hard and carefully through all of the issues put before him while also dealing with a number of personal failures in those around him.

An example of Lincoln wrestling with what is right and with the will of God:

The president had already told the delegates that he was accustomed to hearing from religious leaders on the topic of slavery, and he found it strange that while clergymen held every variety of opinion, all of them claimed to know “the Divine will.” Why, Lincoln now wondered, didn’t God take the forthright approach and reveal his intentions “directly to me, for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” The attending stenographer did not record that a pause followed, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. Then Lincoln continued on a less declarative note: “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”   (Kindle Loc. 5134-41)

Lincoln had an awareness of the historical significance of the decisions he faced and the profound impact his decisions would have on the future of the country.  Facing the issue of the curse of slavery of the slaves, Lincoln weighed the issues for a long time and only very slowly and deliberately came to the conclusion that there was no choice but to emancipate the slaves as the only way forward to save the union.  Drehle writes that Lincoln

“… understood, more than many of his contemporaries, that his actions on the first day of 1863 would be far more significant than any earlier promise he had pledged and kept. As he would put it later, the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” for it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” Here was the “new birth of freedom” he would speak of so brilliantly at Gettysburg.”   (Kindle Loc. 6692-95)

It is rare to find a man with Lincoln’s depth of thought and power to weigh and analyze diverse opinions and to discern a path forward for the entire nation.   Today’s presidents face just as complicated issues and challenges, and are in need of the same powers to analyze and form decisions.  Lincoln was a giant among men.   Few other men have Lincoln’s gifts of deliberation and analysis, and few have the knack for bringing together rivals as advisors that he had.

Our presidents need Lincoln’s wisdom and understanding.   That is why they each also need our prayers.

A Prayer for our Nation’s Leaders

O our God, whose mercy is inscrutable:  Grant unto Your servants, our country’s rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, so that they make give glory to Your Holy Name.

A Test Case – Applying Neuroscience to Law

This is the 15th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Implications of the Free Will Debate.   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

Arguments about whether or not humans have free will are not abstract debates with no practical implications.  As Tallis makes perfectly clear those he labels as the ideologues of Darwinitis and neuromania are intent on reshaping all of human culture according to their philosophical presuppositions.  Tallis warns that we all should be paying attention to this debate and not allowing ourselves to be deceived by scientism which pretends to be science.  Gazzaniga is not so confrontational and rather wants us all to recognize that there are different realms of knowledge and that questions about free well, consciousness and self are after all philosophical debates and not scientific ones since they are dealing with immaterial concepts and science by definition is limited to the study of the material world.   We can look at one issue which Gazzaniga spends some time on: the legal implications of the free will debate.  Both Tallis and Gazzaniga see the neuroscientific technology of the fMRI being brought ever more frequently into the courts as evidence and neuroscientists being called upon to offer their expert opinions on behaviors and free will.  Since the modern Western  sense of justice requires that a person must be capable of making a choice before being found guilty of having committed a crime, the neuromaniac’s claims that there is no such thing as free will has absolute implications for justice of any kind.

Leaving aside the ideological claims of the neo-atheist’s faith in scientism, we can see wherein there are problems.  Gazzaniga outlines the judicial problem in the following way:

“Justice is a concept of moral rightness, but there has never been an agreement as to what moral rightness is based on: ethics (should the punishment fit the crime, retribution, or be for the greater good of the population, utilitarian?), reason (will punishment or treatment lead to a better outcome?), law (a system of rules that one agrees to live by in order to maintain a place in society), natural law (actions results in consequences), fairness (based on rights? based on equality or merit? based on the individual or society?), religion (based on which one?), or equity (allowing the court to use some discretion over sentencing)? Nonetheless, the judge tries to come up with a just disposition.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3270-75)

First, Gazzaniga may overstate the problem – there was a fair amount of broad social agreement on dealing with issues of justice that governed Western civilization for some time.  It is the case that as modern Western society has moved away from a purely modernist view point and relied more on human reason than divine revelation that more diverse viewpoints have come to the forefront.  Multiple perspectives on any issue have become increasingly accepted in our totally individualistic and autonomous based thinking.  The seeds of the Enlightenment’s fight for the absolute rights of the individual have taken root.  Post-modernism and its rejection of any meta-narrative tying together individuals is a fruit of this evolution in thinking.   So under the influence of several very prominent current philosophical trends, agreements about morality and normality and what is acceptable have eroded.  This is the cause of the very partisan and divisive politics in our country.  Some would also say it is simply the nature of modern democracy.

The neuroscience contribution to the fray is that in courts more appeals are being made to fMRI technology to excuse or defend individuals based on the notion that they have “abnormal brains” and thus cannot be held personally accountable for their behavior.  Gazzaniga points out some of the problems with the courts uncritically accepting fMRI scans as scientific proof for excusing behavior:

“There are other problems with the abnormal brain story, but the biggest one is that the law makes a false assumption. It does not follow that a person with an abnormal brain scan has abnormal behavior, nor is a person with an abnormal brain automatically incapable of responsible behavior. Responsibility is not located in the brain. The brain has no area or network for responsibility. As I said before, the way to think about responsibility is that it is an interaction between people, a social contract. Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules. An abnormal brain does not mean that the person cannot follow rules.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3078-83)

Gazzaniga in the above statement comes closer to the position and concerns that Tallis raises.  Personality responsibility like consciousness and free will do not reside only at the level of individuals but are part of the shared social space in which all humans participate.  Gazzaniga points out:

“Diagnosed with schizophrenia after the fact by a psychiatrist for his defense, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for his attempt to assassinate President Reagan. This attempt, however, was premeditated. He had planned it in advance, showing evidence of good executive functioning. He understood that it was against the law and concealed his weapon.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3092-94)

Wisdom, Justice, Vice & Crime, Corruption, Slander, Deception, Despotic Power

The push by some neo-atheists to deny the existence of free will in humans carries with it an extensive agenda to reform society  based on the ideology of scientism, which is a system of belief which denies many of the ideals, aspirations and hopes that have traditionally guided society.  It calls into question the purpose of legal consequences by denying that a person has the ability to make the choices they do.  Gazzaniga counters:

“No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not.”   (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 3432-34)

Lady Freedom

Thus the push for changing how human society has dealt with social problems based in the belief system of scientism is an effort to deceive for it claims to be based in pure science while it based in the philosophical beliefs of materialism.  This is why Tallis warns strongly that we should be afraid of those who believe they can scientifically engineer human morality.  Scientism may be a child of the Enlightenment but it intends to gut the very nature of American idealism which is based in human freedom and personal responsibility.

Next: Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves?

The Great Depression and the Great Recession (2)

This blog is the conclusion of The Great Depression and the Great Recession (1) in which we consider two articles which compare and contrast the 20th Century’s  Great Depression with the 21st Century’s Great Recession.  In this blog we are looking at “The Debt Bomb” by Louis Hyman from the Winter 2012 edition of the WILSON QUARTERLY.   Hyman sets the scenario:

“In the last hundred years, economic inequality in America has peaked twice: in 1928 and in 2007. It is no coincidence that our periods of greatest inequality have coincided with excessive lending. An industrial economy based on mass production requires mass consumption. Either credit or wages must be provided to keep the wheels of industry turning. When wages stagnate and inequality widens, debt gains nearly unstoppable momentum.”

The Great Depression came to an end during WWII after which there was a great economic boom in America and other parts of the world.

“Living in mortgaged homes, driving in financed cars, postwar Americans relaxed at new shopping centers. They borrowed more but also earned more, which meant that while the habit of borrowing grew, debt as a share of income remained relatively stable. Consumer credit kept factories humming, and those well-paid industrial jobs kept the debt burden contained. Banks and finance companies rather than capital markets funded the borrowing, which kept a leash on the credit available. The lender always had skin in the game.

The origins of the shift from a relatively egalitarian manufacturing economy to an unequal financial economy can be seen in the midst of this prosperity.”

The boom, as history has shown in capitalist countries is only part of a cycle which also has a down side.  The prosperity following WWII  changed as “…consumers also began to rely more on borrowing to make ends meet. The careful balance between rising debt and rising income was coming undone.”

The modern American economy began to shift away from manufacturing and more toward profit making through financing – investing and lending which tempted people with potential huge profits over short periods of time.

“As profits in other parts of the economy receded, the profits of this kind of lending exploded. And as consumer debt began to crowd out business debt, less money was available to invest in productive businesses and create the kinds of good jobs that had made America’s postwar formula work.”

“When Jack Welch took the helm at General Electric in 1981, largely on the strength of his success in managing the company’s consumer finance division, his vision was clear, he would later write: ‘Finance is not an institution—it has to be . . . the driving force behind making General Electric ‘the most competitive enterprise on earth.”’  Some older divisions, such as the lighting operations, would be continued, but the profits would be reinvested in financial products.”

“While GE’s profits grew, its manufacturing businesses shrank. In 1980, the year before Welch took control, the company had employed 285,000 people in the United States. By 1998, the U.S. payroll was down to 165,000. For Welch, and for successful American corporations generally, profits mattered more than all those well-paid factory jobs. The incentive was plain. CEOs had a responsibility to the shareholders to produce more profit. A dollar invested in debt made more money than a dollar invested in a factory. For the country as a whole, however, the rising profitability of finance came at a devastating cost.

As finance gained in strength and in its importance to the American economy, bankers increasingly complained that their creativity was being hampered by those pesky regulations that had safeguarded the economy since the 1930s.”

To me what Hyman is portraying is that manufacturing creates jobs that pay well and thus prosperity is spread to a great number of people (the workforce).  On the other hand, the movement in an economy to becoming increasingly based in financial products reduces the workforce thus causing  a loss in good paying jobs and concentrating wealth in the few.   The effects on the nation’s economic well being is negative – as was seen in the 1928 and 2007, both years in which the American capitalistic economy collapsed.

“Contrary to what many politicians and pundits have claimed, the upsurge of securitization was not simply a product of ‘deregulation.’ Regulations may have changed to promote a certain kind of financial system, but at no point did the state abandon the market to itself. It was the interplay of public and private purposes and mechanisms—Freddie Mac, S&Ls, mortgage-backed securities—that made these new sources of capital possible.”

Hyman offers a warning that there are lessons to be learned, or history will simply repeat itself.

“That structural connection between economic inequality and the nation’s financial crisis is still largely ignored. The dangerous investment choices that precipitated the crisis are but a symptom of this underlying cause. Income stagnation continues, pushing Americans toward greater borrowing and less saving. Unemployment remains extraordinarily high. And those who do find work often have to accept lower wages.

Meanwhile, as those at the bottom hang on, profits continue to concentrate at the top. Without a good alternative, capital continues to be invested in consumer debt rather than in the businesses—big and small—that provide jobs. Bankers are once again skittish about lending. If we are to find solutions to the crisis, it is more important to ask why so much money flowed into mortgage-backed securities and so little into productive businesses than to search for villains to blame for what went wrong.

During the Great Depression, New Deal policymakers figured out ways to harness the resale of debt, but they recognized that increasing the supply of credit without also increasing wages would only lead to another crash. But in the last 40 years, debt levels have climbed while wages have remained stagnant because securitization made it much easier to lend to consumers than to businesses. That continuing imbalance is a threat to the long-run stability of the American economy.”

The Great Depression and the Great Recession (1)

Blogging for me is a way to express some thoughts and reactions to things I read or learn about.  As I’ve note before one doesn’t have to know something to blog, one only has to have an opinion which one is willing to express.  So I’m going to venture off onto economic issues because I recently read about them, first in  the WILSON QUARTERLY 2012 article “Revisiting the Great Depression” by Robert J. Samuelson.   I found interesting his thesis that

The role of the welfare state in today’s economic crisis recalls the part played by the gold standard in the calamitous 1930s.”

“Just as the gold standard amplified and transmitted the effects of the Depression, so the modern welfare state is magnifying the effects of the recession.”

I’ve read different comparisons between the 20th Century’s Great Depression and the recent Great Recession of the 21st Century, but Samuelson is the first I’ve seen indicate that the current “welfare state” may have the same drag on the economy that the gold standard had in the 1930’s.   The gold standard is thought by some to have hamstrung the economy in the 1920’s and 30’s limiting growth by limiting the amount of capital available to be invested in the economy.    Samuelson defends comparing the effects of the gold standard on the economy of the 1920’s with the effects of the modern welfare state on the modern economy:

 “Casting the welfare state in this role will strike many as outrageous. After all, the welfare state—what Americans blandly call ‘social spending’—didn’t cause the 2007–09 financial crisis. This dubious distinction belongs to the huge credit bubble that formed in the United States and elsewhere, symbolized by inflated real estate prices and large losses on mortgage-related securities. But neither did the gold standard directly cause the 1929 stock market crash. Wall Street’s collapse stemmed, most simply, from speculative excesses. Stock prices were too high for an economy that was already (we now know) entering recession. But once the slump started, the gold standard spread and perpetuated it. Today, the weakened welfare state is perpetuating and spreading the slump.

What has brought the welfare state to grief is not an excess of compassion, but an excess of debt.”

Samuelson goes on to describe how the US pulled out of the depression because of certain demographic truths.  But he also notes what factors today are not exactly the same as in the time after the Great Depression.  Our climb out of the Great Depression had some factors in its favor which are not true today.

“But this system required favorable economics and demographics—and both have moved adversely. A younger population was needed to lighten the burden of supporting the old, the largest claimants of benefits. Rapid economic growth was needed to generate the tax revenues to pay for benefits. Indeed, the great expansion of benefits started in the 1950s and ’60s, when annual economic growth in Europe and the United States averaged about four percent or more, and the expectation was that this would continue indefinitely. Long-term economic growth is now reckoned closer to two percent a year…”

But the unfavorable demographics in Europe and the US during the current economic crisis are not those of the post-Great Depression times.  So modern governments have tried a different set of solutions to the economic crisis:

“The means of escape from these unhappy trends was to borrow. Some countries with extensive welfare systems that didn’t borrow heavily (examples: Sweden and Finland) have fared well. But most governments became dependent on bond markets.”

The results of government efforts have to date not been totally successful, though some would argue a point harder to prove: what was done prevented an even worse economic disaster.    Samuelson offers a moral to the story:

“The mistake, popularized largely by economists, was to believe that regulation of the economy could be derived from theory and converted into practical precepts for policy. The reality is that economic life is not solely described or dictated by rhythms suggested by economic models. It moves in response to institutions, technologies, beliefs, and cultures that follow their own logic, sometimes with completely unexpected, mystifying, and terrifying consequences.”

The world’s economy has proven to be more difficult to push into recovery than many had hoped.  President Hoover in the 20th Century was criticized for not doing enough to stimulate the economy because of his conservatism; President Obama has been criticized for doing too much because of his being liberal.  But the two crises represent different times with efforts made having results that cannot exactly be compared to each other.   As in chaos theory, there are so many factors, and so many unpredictable factors that shape the world’s economy that trying to predict the exact effects of certain “stimulus” efforts  may not be possible.

In the next blog I will look at another WILSON QUARTERLY article, “The Debt Bomb”,  which analyzes the causes of the ongoing Great Recession.

Next:  The Great Depression and the Great Recession (2)

Ethics and Economics

I’ve been slowly reading through John Medaille’s TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET: A DISTRIBUTIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT, TAXES, HEALTH CARE, DEFICITS, AND MORE.    As I’ve acknowledged in previous blogs I have no formal education in economics, so it often is incomprehensible to me, and I will not here defend or critique the book.

Medaille offers a rather somber evaluation of modern economics and thinks the ongoing economic crisis worldwide is not an aberration but really the end result of modern economic, capitalistic policies.  One thesis of the book is that in an effort to make economics a hard science (rather than a mere social science) economists jettisoned ideas of morality.  Economics void of morality becomes a strange animal indeed creating many of the problems we see all around the world.  Some people defend as the greatest good whatever is “good for the economy.”   But of course exactly what constitutes the economy is not completely accounted for (is it people or businesses?  citizens or corporations?), nor is “good” defined especially in a system of thinking which wants to avoid moral judgments.  Medaille for example points out that while current economic thinking assumes the existence of labor, it cannot account for the existence of labor because it totally ignores the existence of families.

Modern economics does not account at all for what it costs to produce a labor force, thus families are left to scramble on their own to earn enough to survive meanwhile “the economy”  (economic leaders and forces) feel no responsibility for the survival let alone thriving of families.  So economic policies often ignore what is good for the family.    Additionally the labor force is also the consumer force – the rich get richer off the labor and consumption of these people.   But those leaders of economic ideas see no connection between the cost of producing a labor force and their own profitability.    Medaille offers many ideas about how to correct some of the problems that beset the world economy today, ideas based in distributist economics.  Some of his ideas would resonate with conservatives (especially he advocates a significantly smaller federal government) but his arguments on the moral issues of economics might not make conservatives feel so comfortable.  The keystone to his ideas is the notion of the just wage (you can read more on distributist ideas at http://distributistreview.com/mag/)

I suppose because I’ve been thinking about Medaille’s ideas connecting ethics to economics, I paid attention to a 20 December 2011 NY Times Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, Deep Pockets, Deeply Political.   Blow is sounding a recently familiar alarm:

 A tiny number of wealthy Americans are playing an ever-increasing role in financing our politics. This is not a good thing for a democracy.

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making government “transparent and accountable,” issued a report, which said:

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. …

The report also pointed out that “overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers” and that “a good number appear to be highly ideological.” In the 2010 election cycle, the report revealed, “the average one percent of one percenter spent $28,913, more than the median invdividual income of $26,364.”

But perhaps even more disturbing was this:

The community of donors giving more than $10,000 (in 2010 dollars) has more than quadrupled, from 6,456 in 1990 to 26,783 in 2010. In 1990, they accounted for 28.1% of all itemized (over $200) donations. By 2010, that number had risen to 44.1%. These donors are also accounting for an increasing number of all donations. And they’re giving more, too. In 1990, the average donation was $13,443. By 2010, it was more than double: $28,913.

James Madison

That the top  1% of  the well-to-do are financially more influential in politics than the rest of the country is not new.  Certainly Jefferson’s call that “all men are created equal” was not really a declaration of the equality of every human being but rather a demand that the limited number of landed gentry should be considered equals with the king.  The founding fathers envisioned some sense of the upper class ruling the country (as I recall James Madison even made mention at one point that the wealthy actually constitute a minority in the country and they had to be protected under minority rights against majority rule!).   There seems to have been in fact some notion among America’s creators that the well-to-do get to retire from work early and then can nobly serve the country in political office (This was an idea entertained by Ben Franklin).   So the wealthy being more influential in government than the majority of people is part of our democracy by and for the people from the beginnings of these United States!

I find myself connecting the statistics which Blow mentions to the ideas of morality in economics raised by Medaille.  People who are willing to drop nearly $30,000 down to influence politics are the ones who are fighting against paying taxes.  They would rather give $30,000 to political parties to promote their own interests (though this political donation is a form of a tax – the price to prosper in America) than to give that same amount of money to the government for the common good.  And they will give that same amount of money year after to year to political causes to avoid paying even less than that amount in taxes.

In the ancient Roman republic the imperial family and their slaves staffed the government at no public expense.  Senators and the equestrian class did the same out of a sense of duty – it was they who paid out of their own wealth for public buildings and services.  The landed elites of the provincial cities in turn paid for public services out of a sense of their own responsibility for the public good.

Is this civic sense, the sense of the common good,  what is so lacking in the current process of the wealthy paying for the politics of America?  Now, sadly people are willing to pay only for their own self interest – which often means exactly avoiding contributing to the common good.  A civic pride seems to be lacking.  The Romans thought patriotism meant working for the common good of all citizens which entailed spending their own money to build up (=edify) society.   Belonging to the wealthy class and owning property was considered a privilege which carried great responsibility for the common good of every citizen.  They believed all citizens should benefit from prosperity of the empire and of the wealthy.

Americans love to criticize entitlements – generally of any subgroup of Americans to which they don’t belong.  But entitlement thinking exists in the upper echelons of wealth too – it is entitlement which says the wealth is mine alone and no part of it is to be used for the common good.   It is entitlement thinking which fails to see the land on which we stand as a natural resource which is a shared good which profits all Americans.

George Washington

The common good does not mean socialism.  Medaille certainly opposes socialism which he actually thinks is really a necessary offshoot of capitalism because  current capitalism fails to consider that all economic issues are ethical issues as well.  Patriotism as valuing all citizens and working for the common good is in short supply in America these days.   Patriotism which values civic duty  is not a nationalistic exclusivism or exceptionalism.  It is a virtue which the founding fathers did embrace as they imagined citizen statesmen and citizen soldiers.   These same founding fathers thought the wealthiest Americans would come forward and support the common good for all citizens – such were their ethical beliefs.

None of this means we cannot question the size of the federal government, or work to reduce its size.  Certainly the size of the government is a question worth debating – and for Medaille this is part of the ethical discussion which needs to take place.  The issue I raise is whether our extreme individualism doesn’t in the end hurt the very basis of civil society as we cease to have any sense of responsibility for others.

ECOnomics

Whenever I blog on economics or statistics, I know I make some folk uneasy with my comments.  But the joy of blogging is commenting on things I read or think about for which I don’t have to be right.  That appears to be the job of the rest of the world, who lets me know where my economic thinking goes astray.

Super Committee inaction

First a comment on the failure of the “Super Committee” to come up with a budget reduction plan which supposedly now will trigger mandatory cuts in government spending, including mandatory cuts for the military (this last phrase,  I think, is always thrown in to make conservatives nervous).

In our pluralistic society, the “consent of the governed” is going to mean that those who govern have to come up with compromises so that they can form majority coalitions to approve of legislation.  But in America this also has come under criticism as “business as usual” and Americans politically are perpetually in favor of change.    So the legislators can’t compromise and they can’t get anything done (which means they can’t govern reasonably either).  So  mandatory cuts in government spending are the only kind of cuts that are going to be agreed upon.  Americans are fed up with this political gridlock as well, at least based upon polls rating Congress (I heard one commentator note that communism gets a higher approval rating in America than Congress – 11% to 9%).

Cutting both the annual deficit and the national debt seem like proper goals to me.  The deficit can be cut/eliminated by cuts in spending, but to reduce the national debt, I believe, is going to require some tax increases (even if temporary).   Since I favor a balanced budget for the government and a reduction in the national debt, I believe we have to talk both spending cuts and tax increases.     I think that means talking about how to make Medicare and Social Security solvent as well.  Apparently none of these ideas is very popular with our national legislators and so they cannot come up with a reasoned planned and only seem to be able to acquiesce to a mandated reduction in spending (and even at that some are not comfortable with the mandatory reductions and seem to want to avoid them as well).    It seems obvious enough that continuing on the current path is not going to reduce the national debt, so the legislators decided to take those decisions out of their own hands and allow mandatory cuts to do their work for them.  But it is also true if we send our elected congressional leaders to Washington and tell them not to compromise to resolve the deficit and debt we are going to get what we got: an inability to govern reasonably.   In a democracy, compromise is not always a bad word as it means bi-partisan.   We might remember that ‘partisans’ from one point of view are ‘terrorists’ from another point of view.  Governments are said not to negotiate with terrorists.

What isn’t needed is more blame, but there always seems plenty of that around; a super  abundance of blame will not reduce the national debt or deficit one penny.  We waste our money when we send to congress people who have nothing to offer but blame.

My intent in this blog is not to belabor our government (“we the people”) and our inability to reasonably solve problems because of our ideological rigidities.

Instead, I want to comment on was a graph I saw in the 14 November issue of TIME with an article by Stephen Gandel titled “The Deregulation Myth.”   The gist of the graph is that despite a popular notion in the US that government regulations are hurting economic growth, worldwide the statistics show a different picture.  For the five years ending in 2010, the US is ranked 4th out of 183 countries as being the most business friendly (Singapore is 1st, Hong Kong 2nd, New Zealand 3rd).   In that time period the US had an increase in GDP of 15%.   But in that same time period China had a GDP increase of 160%, Russia of 94%, Brazil  135%, and Indonesia 147%.   These are countries in which businesses  are more regulated than US businesses.   Being more business friendly and government deregulation of business do not automatically create jobs or economic growth.  Capitalism moves money to where capitalism believes there is money to be made.   It is an oversimplification for politicians to promise Americans significant economic growth by further reducing government regulations.  America is already one of the most business friendly nations on earth.

The reality is America cannot control all of the economic factors in the world.   Politicians have limited powers as to what they are able to do to improve the economy.

If America cannot control world economics, what is our best strategy for living with, in and as part of the family of nations (which maybe we can influence even when we can’t control them)?   If politicians really have limited power to change the American economy, what are our best domestic strategies for creating sustainable economic growth?

Things to ponder.

For me there are also ethical questions regarding the relationship between profit and greed and the balance between sustainable economic growth and environmental stewardship.  We are after all not merely consumers on earth, but stewards of the earth.   God so loved the world, we believe, and we too are to love His creation, not just greedily use it for profit but for the benefit of all.   We Americans certainly believe that no tyrant anywhere on earth should control its resources.  So too, we have to abide on earth in peace with the rest of the world sharing the earth’s resources following that same principle as well.

See also my blog America and Capitalism: Dr. Frankenstein’s Demonic Lesson

Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct

This is the 2nd blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse.  The previous blog is State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds.

Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc.    There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy.   [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed.   If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]

There is a certain level at which the church might want to pay attention to these things anyhow – does the church not have an interest in its clergy behaving morally, above reproach and scandal, in a holy manner?   Should the church passively ignore these areas of behavior even if the state doesn’t demand it of us?

For bishops there is another issue – not only can the bishops be held responsible for the misdeeds of their clergy whom they supervise, but also these clergy are ordained by the bishops, so the bishops share some responsibility for putting these men into pastoral office in the first place.  So not only must the bishops practice vigilance regarding following Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP) regarding the behavior of clergy, but more diligence is needed by the bishops in knowing the men they choose to ordain.  If there are warning signs of problems, these should not be ignored by the bishops or they will have to give account for whom they ordained.

Going back to the NY Times article.  Three things really stuck out in my mind:

1)   “Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.”

Though the bishop did turn over the photos to the police, the bishop waited 5 months to do so.   Not only following the law, but doing so ASAP is critical.  Church officials are often slow to react to allegations, sometimes because the accused is a friend or well known and they find it hard to believe that their acquaintance could do such a thing.  This is where having a clear PSP demanding the investigation of all allegations, regardless of who the accuser or the alleged perpetrator is, is so essential.

2)  “But until May the priest attended children’s parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion, according to interviews with parishioners and a civil lawsuit filed by a victim’s family.”

When the church hierarchy tries to suppress knowledge of the allegations, it puts other people at risk for being hurt.  Of course the church has to have clear PSPs in how to deal publicly with those accused of misconduct, but it also must be willing to follow and enforce those PSPs and not allow exceptions no matter who the accused is or what his rank is.

3)   That report found that the diocese did not follow its own procedures. It also found that Bishop Finn was “too willing to trust” Father Ratigan.”

Exactly what I mentioned in point 1) above.  Hierarchy tends to trust its clergy against their parishioners.   Many clergy rely on this for helping them deal with parish problems.  Some clergy do foolish and damaging things and then expect the bishop to cover their backs.   But clear PSPs can help the bishops make better pastoral decisions, if they themselves are enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance with the rules by their clergy, by diocesan staff, and by themselves.

Next:  In the Church, Not of the Church?