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

A Theology of Government

Today is election day across the United States, though this  year many of the races and issues being decided upon are local rather than national or even on a state level.   Since it isn’t a national election, Ohio is not ground zero for the political battle this year, for which I’m grateful.    I don’t have the heart for listening to the negative campaigning and though many think that is a necessary but messy part of true democracy, I could live without it.

Biblical scholar N.T.Wright comments on what he discerns to be a theology of government found in the scriptures.   On the one hand, God is forever trying to bring order upon a universe which  tends toward chaos, and government is part of a god determined plan for order in the world.  On the other hand, rulers have had a penchant for choosing evil and abusing their power, and God finds it necessary to hold all leaders accountable for their behavior.  The fact that rulers are needed in the fallen world, does not give them license to do as they please.

“The Jewish political belief we find in books like this was based on a strong theology of creation, fall, and providence: the one God had in fact created all the world, including all rulers, and though they were often exceedingly wicked God was overruling their whims for his own strange and often hidden purposes, and would judge them in turn. This meant that a classic Jewish position, which echoes on well into the Christianity of the second and third centuries, seems to us today to play from both ends of the spectrum at once. The rulers are wicked and will be judged, especially when they persecute God’s people. But God wants the world to be ruled, rather than to descend into anarchy and chaos, and his people must learn to live under pagan rule even though it means constant vigilance against compromise with paganism itself. […]

Augustus Caesar

God wants the world to be ordered, to keep evil in check, otherwise wickedness simply flourishes and naked power and aggression wins. But the rulers of the world are themselves answerable to God, not least at the point where they use their power to become just like the bullies they are supposed to be restraining. Meanwhile, God is working out a very different purpose, which will result in the vindication of his people and the judgment of the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world. All this is based, of course, on a creational monotheism which, faced with evil in the world, declares that God will one day put it all to rights, and that we can see advance signs of that in systems of justice and government even when they are imperfect. This leaves no room for a dualism in which pagan rulers are thoroughly bad and can be ignored, or overthrown without thought for what will come next. Nor does it allow that kind of pantheism in which rulers are simply part of the fabric of the divinely ordered world, requiring unquestioning submission to their every whim.” (Paul, pps. 66,68-69)

G. Washington resigns his commission.

 

American Dysfunction and the Government Shutdown

Being BreadI read the following excerpt in Stephen Muse’s worthy book of anecdotes from his own life and experience,  BEING BREAD.   The quote below has value in and of itself, and is especially thoughtful for any persons in an intense personal relationship.   First, just read Muse’s own comment, and then read through the poem by R. D. Laing.  Find what wisdom you can in the quote for your own life.  I’ll make more comments following the quote about other things to which it led my thoughts.

“When couples get in emotional negative feedback loops arguing in their relationship where each is trying to change the other in order to feel better, they frequently can’t stop and inevitably begin to suffer more, going round and round, louder and louder like in a squirrel cage.  psychiatrist R.D. Lang wrote a book of poem called “Knots‘ celebrating the intricate emotional pretzels he found that painfully tied unhappy couples together.

How can she be happy when the man she loves is unhappy?

He feels she is blackmailing him by making him feel guilty

because she is unhappy that he is unhappy.

She feels he is trying to destroy her love for him by accusing her of being selfish

when the trouble is that she can’t be so selfish

as to be happy when the man she loves is unhappy.

She feels there must be something wrong with her

to love someone who can be so cruel as to destroy her love for him

and is too guilty to be happy,

and is unhappy because he is guilty.

He feels that he is unhappy because he is guilty to be happy when others are unhappy

and that he made a mistake to marry someone who can only think of happiness.”

(BEING BREAD, pp 117-118)

While I think the whole quote is quite profound and brilliant when applied to any couple, it led in the meanderings of my mind to our American government shutdown and how we got to this point in our history.  Muse refers to the “emotional negative feedback loops” between partners in a relationship which are so destructive.  That seems to be an appropriate phrase describing the relationship America’s two main political parties.  Their mutually destructive feedback becomes a paralyzing force in their dysfunctional relationship and it is the entire country which suffers.

The job of congress is to legislate in order to run the government.  In a democracy where more than one opinion exists on any issue, functioning – aka ‘running the government’ – means considering the main ideas that are being offered and then working together to hammer out a solution.  Cooperation in a democracy means compromises must be made and reached.  We don’t have a one party system of government – like exists in North Korea, and did exist in Libya and Syria and Iraq.  These are each governments we don’t seem much to admire and in fact have worked to replace.  So we are forced to deal with messy disagreement.

mccain_obama_apLang’s poem with its twisted logic may even present an amusing account of two lover’s tortured efforts to shift blame for relational failures on each other.   The political party’s inability to communicate and the level to which they play twisted blame games is not amusing.  And while the political parties can hardly be compared to lovers, they are both supposed to love our nation, which means they should be able to find a way to cooperate with each other since both parties are made in the USA.

I find particularly offensive those politicians who claim the ‘other side’ is  engaging in partisan politics.  The political party’s are not there to agree on every issue, but they are there to work together for the common good, to promote the general welfare.

They have to find a way through their differences to come to a solution to our nation’s problems.  When I read Robert Caro’s book four in his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson,  THE PASSAGE OF POWER,  it seemed to me that the ability and willingness to work compromise in the congress is a great strength that LBJ brought to the Kennedy administration.   It was a skill that neither JFK or RFK seemed to possess.

Political commentator George Will said in an NPR Interview that the current standoff really is the messy part of how democracy is to work in America.  The balance of power between the branches of government was designed to limit the power of government.   Will thinks President Obama forgets that at points:

This is the Madisonian scheme. Each institution shall be the jealous asserter of its prerogatives and try to maximize its power. I sometimes think that when he was at Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama cut class the day they got to the separation of powers, ’cause he seems to consider it not just an inconvenience but an indignity that although he got 270 electoral votes and therefore gets to be president, he didn’t get everything. The Madisonian scheme is for the government to be hard to move. It’s supposed to be. People look at Washington and say, oh gosh, this is so difficult. It’s supposed to be difficult.

There is a difficulty built into the system.  And while I think Will’s comments are fair enough, the President is the only person elected by the entire nation, so his interests cannot be that of senator or congressmen who respectively represent  states and then smaller districts.   In America today voters send different messages to Washington  on the national, state and district level in the very different voices they elect.

 Part of the problem is we are a diverse nation with a strong polarizing political tendency at the moment.  While the political parties can choose to cater to the polar extremes of their respective parties, in Washington they are supposed to be working for the nation not just for their political party.  The president, the house of representatives and the senate are to figure out how to best represent American interests and the interests of Americans.  We have all of the complexities that Lincoln faced in his own days as President of a badly divided country.  He prayed for wisdom, and so should we all ask God to give our country’s leaders the wisdom and discernment for how to move ahead in the 21st Century.

Limited Government, Limiting War

Sometimes it seems to me that Americans and America trusts in only one thing : the power of its military.  Despite our perpetually coined phrase, “In God we trust”, and despite our claims to be promoting democracy throughout the world, it is the military that we send out on an endless global mission.  It is often American military might that is the only thing some other nations experience about America.

Sadly, it seems that the world, too, doesn’t value our democracy as much as it envies our military jets, missiles and technology.  Nations hope not that America will import democracy to their shores, but they do want to own our military technology.

And so its not in democratic venues that we challenge one another in the world – in debate and in voting, but forever on the battlefield. No nation in the world seems interested in debating American democratic ideals, but all keep an eye on our military, in fear or envy or in imitation.  Militarism seems to be what many in the world think about when they think about America.

Limited government is the genius of the US constitution, but it seems that some of the politicians who tout limited government are the same ones who also favor unlimited support for military growth – as if the military were not government.    But in the Constitution military is clearly part of the government.  James Madison, founding father of the U.S., “Father of the Bill of Rights,” President, commented on the Constitution:

“A declaration that there shall be war is not an execution of laws: it does not suppose pre-existing laws to be executed; it is not in any respect an act merely executive. It is, on the contrary, one of the most deliberative acts that can be performed… In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the Congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested, and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act. The constitutional idea of this power would seem then clearly to be that it is of a legislative and not an executive nature…. Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government analogous to that which separates the sword form the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws.”

Madison once wrote that those generations who declare war ought to pay for the entire enterprise and not leave expenses to future generations. He thought this would curtail the desire to go to war. He felt the problem with having a standing army is that the government will not be able to resist the temptation to put it to use. No doubt he felt having the congress rather than the president be responsible for declaring and going to war would curtail the number of wars the country declared since it is harder to get a majority to agree than to have one executive officer engage in whatever adventurism he is wont to do. Presidents in the last 50 years have found plenty of reason to go off to war, without the constitutionally mandated approval of congress.  Maybe we have learned some lessons and will in this century restore the balance of power between the branches of government.   The balance of power as brilliantly enshrined in the Constitution is not between Democrats and Republicans (neither party is Constitutionally necessary) but between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.   American power should not be defined or limited to our military.  American power is a government of, by and for the people.

The Cost of Living

The 10 October 2011 issue of TIME had a few statistical graphs giving a financial picture of our lives today.   The statistical graphs I found most interesting were the ones dealing with how we Americans allocated our personal budgets through the last 60 years.  The statistics were measuring the “Percentage of Total Personal Consumption Spending.”

In 1950 Americans spent :

22% of Personal Consumption Spending on Food,

13% on housing,

10% on clothing,

3% on health care,

3% on financial services and insurance.

By 1970 we were spending

17% on housing,

16% on food,

7% on clothing,

7% on health care,

5% on financial services and insurance.

In 1990 our personal consumption spending looked like this:

18% on housing,

13% on health care,

10% on food,

7% on financial services and insurance,

5% on clothing.

Finally by 2010 our spending looked like this:

18% on housing,

16% on health care,

8% on financial services and insurance,

7% on food,

3% on clothing.

Of course the stats don’t give us a clear picture as to why these changes.  Obviously the percent of our personal consumption spending on food and clothes has declined significantly.  The stats don’t say whether that is because the actual price of these goods has fallen, or if we choose to spend less on these items, or if we simply have more disposable income and so we can devote a smaller portion of our budget to food and clothes.

What stands out in my mind is the soaring cost of health care.  As a percentage of total personal consumption spending, health care spending jumped from 3% in 1950, to 7% in 1970, to 13% in 1990, to 16% in 2010.  So while I hear some Americans claim the American health care industry is the best in the world, it appears we will have to add the caveat “for those who can afford it.”    In difficult financial times how many Americans cannot afford to give 16% of their spending to health care.  Health care is rapidly approaching taking up as much of our spending as housing.   Maybe we value our health that much, or maybe we will all have to start choosing between having a home or being able to participate in the American health care system.

Our diseases will be treated but we will have to cope with the “dis-ease” that we can not afford both health care and having a home.

Related to the above numbers, 27% of Americans have gone without health insurance which might indicate that they cannot afford to spend such a high percentage of their personal consumption on health.  But interestingly, having adequate health insurance is less a concern today – only 47%  mention worrying about having adequate health care while 77% are worried about outsourcing jobs to other countries.  Again no explanation is offered as to why people are less concerned about having adequate health insurance – it could be that they feel they can do nothing about it anyway or that health care is so expensive that they know they can’t afford to worry about as it is beyond their reach.

While I know many Americans hate government involvement in things like health care, I wonder has the insurance industry or the health care industry put forth any viable plans which do not involve government and which lower the costs of health care to make them more affordable to and more accessible to more/all Americans?  If health care is driven by wall street, the only concern is going to be profit.  Can the industry create a system whose real concerns are the American people themselves?   Are people more than simply consumers of health care?  How can we create within capitalism a system in which the benefit of the people is the concern and in which this doesn’t end up having to be what government advocates for?   The people often feel when compared to the big money of the health care industry their only hope for an advocate is big government.  What do the health care and insurance industries have to change/do to make the health of the American people the obvious focus of their concern – the real bottom line?

Redistribution of Income Revisited

In my blog The Redistribution of Wealth I made comments about the redistribution of wealth taking place in America, not as a result of taxes or liberal/socialist policies, but as a result of intentional economic policy which seemed to favor the wealthy to become wealthier.  The article in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY, shows that from 1976 to 2007, the top 1% wealthiest Americans went from earning 9% of America’s total income to 24% – a sizable redistribution of income.  The article did note that simultaneously the American economic pie got bigger, so even those lower on the wealth scale benefited from the growing economy, but still the growth in income for the top 1% wealthiest Americans  was increasing very rapidly.

In the comments to that blog, Brian searched the Internet to check those facts and found a very different set of numbers which he listed in his comment.  His numbers look at the distribution of wealth between the top 1% wealthiest Americans and the 99% rest of Americans.  There it is obvious that the wealthiest 1% have historically and consistently owned a disproportionately large percentage of America’s total wealth, but then that is exactly what puts them in the wealthiest 1%!

Dn. Marty in another comment to the blog was able to locate the original article referred to in the WQ and reports the article is talking about income not wealth and so those statistics are quite different from what Brian quotes.  Thus is the world of facts and statistics – it isn’t so much a redistribution of the total wealth but the incomes of the top 1% are increasing at a fairly phenomenal and accelerating rate over the 31 year period from 1976-2007.

I think Dn. Marty’s comments solve the legitimate issue and questions raised by Brian.  The two sets of numbers are apples and oranges:  wealth vs. income.

The numbers Brian provided from 1922 to 2007 caught my attention in another way, which is more related to the original point I wanted to make: we see that the top 1% wealthiest Americans controlled a portion of America’s wealth ranging from a low point of 19.9% in 1976 up to a high of 44.2% in 1929.   I know I’ve read from several sources that in terms of American economics, the economy is strongest when a greater number of people share the wealth – this makes sense in an economy driven by consumer spending.  If only the elite few have a lot of disposable income, there won’t be much consumer spending.  When many/most people have income to spend – the economy benefits, and merchants and manufacturers are kept busy and prosperous.

So the numbers quoted by Brian  show (in my mind at least) a kind of Freakonomics thing about the economy.

In 1929, the top 1% wealthiest Americans possessed 44.2% of Americas wealth.  That is the all time high on the chart.   What happened in 1929?   The Great Depression.   The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few was bad for the economy as a whole.

In those same statistics, in 1976, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned only 19.9% of Americas wealth, the lowest on the chart given.   This occurs in the years right before America went on an unabated 25 year period of economic growth; this was an unprecedented period of growth for the country.

But this growth was accompanied by the wealthiest 1% gaining possession over an ever increasing portion of America’s total wealth, peaking between 1995-1998 at just over 38% of America’s wealth.  In that same time period (1976-2007) the share of the nation’s income of the wealthiest 1% increased from 9-24%.    And then we come to 2007 when the wealthiest 1% controlled just over 34% of the nation’s wealth (and those numbers were on a annual upward trend) AND now earned 24% of the nation’s income.  Result again?  The Great Recession of the 21st Century.

There are so many factors that enter into this picture, many events outside the U.S., but still the notion that the economy does benefit when wealth is shared by a greater number of individuals seems to be in these statistics.   From 1976 to 1995, the top 1% wealthiest Americans doubled their  share of America’s wealth from 19% to 38%.  Remember the pie also got bigger so many people lower on the scale also owned “more” but relative to the whole pie, the bottom 99% had a much smaller share of the larger pie to divide up. (see also my blog American Ingenuity and Re-inventing of Government).

It is something to think about – a freakish co-incidence or Freakonomics?  When the total of America’s wealth or income gets concentrated in the top 1% of wealthiest Americans to the tune of 34-45%, is that a good predictor that the country is in for another great recession/depression?

If it is, then the question becomes, since the economy is totally human made, and we can recognize the warning signs that the economy is reaching a point where a great recession/depression is imminent, should we form policies that prevent this scenario from ever arising by insuring that wealth and income are spread over a greater portion of the population?

America became immensely wealthier through the years, but even that gargantuan increase in wealth/capital could not prevent the economic collapse/disaster which hit the country over the past few years.   Could better economic policies have helped by recognizing the signs that the system was getting out of balance?

The economy is a human made product.  Are there not ways that humans can help regulate it so that it better serves us all?   I know today government regulation has a bad name, but the economy is not mother nature, it is completely human made and responds to and is  shaped by human speculation, human fears, lack of confidence, human error, human greed, political gridlock, and world events.  And while many don’t trust government to do any better with the economy than investors or Wall Street or the banking industry, government of, by and for the people is a potential force to check other forces we’ve created.

American Ingenuity and Re-inventing our Government

This blog offers some concluding thoughts to my previous blog, Redistributing Wealth.

In analyzing the political partisanship and implacable ideologues Fareed Zakaria  writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME offers some thoughts about why the American system of government is not able to solve our current fiscal problems:

“American parties now function like European parliamentary ones, ideologically pure and with tight discipline. But we don’t have a European system. In parliamentary systems, power is united so that when, for example, the British Prime Minister’s coalition takes office, it controls the legislative branch as well as the executive. The Prime Minister is, in effect, chief legislator as well as chief executive. The ruling party gets a chance to implement its agenda, and then the public can either re-elect it or throw the bums out. The U.S. system is one of shared and overlapping powers. No one person or party is fully in control; everyone is checked and balanced. People have to cooperate for anything to get done. That is why the Tea Party’s insistence on holding the debt ceiling hostage in order to force its policies on the country–the first time the debt ceiling has been used this way–was so deeply un-American.

The strength of the Tea Party is part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of small, intensely motivated groups that have been able to capture American politics. The causes are by now familiar. The redistricting of Congress creates safe seats, so the incentive is to pander to the extremes to fend off primary challenges, rather than to work toward the center. Narrowcast media amplify strong voices at the ends of the spectrum and make politicians pay a price for any deviation from dogma. A more open and transparent Congress has meant a Congress more easily pressured by small interest groups and lobbyists. Ironically, during this period, more and more Americans identify as independents. Registered independents are at an all-time high. But that doesn’t matter. The system in Congress reflects not rule by the majority but rule by the minority–fanatical, organized minorities.

These dysfunctions have reached crisis levels at the very time the U.S. faces intense pressures from an aging population, technological change and globalization. We need smart policies in every field. We need to pare spending in areas like health care and pensions but invest in others like research and development, infrastructure and education in order to grow. In an age of budgetary limits, money needs to be spent wisely and only on projects that are effective. But in area after area–energy, immigration, infrastructure–government policy is suboptimal, a sad mixture of political payoffs and ideological positioning. Countries from Canada to Australia to Singapore implement smart policies and copy best practices from around the world. We bicker and remain paralyzed.

Some of those best practices used to be American. The world once looked at America with awe as we built the interstate highway system, created the best public education in the world, put a man on the moon and invested in the frontiers of knowledge. That is not how the world sees America today. People watched what happened over the past month and could not comprehend it. We have taken something that the world never doubted–the credibility of the U.S.–and put it into question. From now on, every time the debt ceiling has to be debated, the world will wonder, Will America honor its commitments? Will it keep its word? Will the system break down? We have taken our most precious resource, the trust of the world, and gambled with it. If, as a result of these congressional antics, interest rates on America’s debt rise by 1% –in other words, if the world asks for just a little bit more interest to lend us money–the budget deficit will rise by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That would more than wipe out the entire 10 years of cuts proposed in the debt deal. That’s the American system at work these days.

Old Senate Chamber

Maybe we can rethink what we are doing.  American ingenuity both invented and grew out of the changing political world of the 18th Century.  That same ingenuity if it is allowed to thrive rather than be throttled by ideologues can re-invent the government which helped make America great.

If it is the case that our political system is becoming polarized to the point of being paralyzed, a former congressman offered his opinion about how we got to this point.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) first elected to congress  in 1982 made observations about a big change that occurred in congress that contributed to the polarization in congress and inability to work together.   Cooper writing in BOSTON REVIEW (May-June 2011) as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY commented to the effect:

“Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus.  O’Neill’s was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief,’  Cooper recalls.”

There even was a time when “a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill.  The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicanss subscribed.”

Cooper says the system changed a great deal  “under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)”.  “Gingrich centralized power in the office of the Speaker and politicized the position.   Committee chairs, powerful under O’Neill, were ’emasculated, their authority redirected to the Speaker.”  It was in this time the Democratic Study Group mentioned above ceased to exist.

It is possible that Gingrich made these changes to correct what were perceived as problems of congressional dysfunction in his day.  Don’t know that story, but I’m just following Cooper’s line of thinking.

The changes that Cooper claims occurred are still in effect to this day, and it has not mattered whether Republicans or Democrats have been in power, they now follow the precedent set by Gingrich.   Cooper notes, “The truth is that the [Gingrich] model works … if you are only interested in partisan control of Congress.”

This of course gets back to Fareed Zakariah’s point above that the U.S. political system is not a European parliamentary system.   So those who are demanding that we return to the Constitution in determing how government is to operate, maybe we have to demand that we abandon the polarizing parliamentary European system and return to our democratic system where disagreeing politicians are forced to sit down together and work out a compromise that solves our problems.

Cooper’s “solution” is that our congressmen get “merit” pay based on their ability to co-operate to make the system work – including merit pay for those who eliminate obsolete laws  and who work to cut spending.  Not sure how that idea would work.

I want to also acknowledge that some think the rancorous process which we witnessed in dealing with the debt ceiling problem is nothing but democracy at work.  Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 12 August 2011) thinks the system is working fine and we should quit complaining.  He notes what is an obvious truth of American politics, voters do react against both ideas and politicians they don’t like.  Thus we see swings in voters moving left and right whenever they think politicians have gone too far.  He feels confident the system is doing what it is supposed to do and the results in the debt ceiling debate did what they could do.  He wrote: “It was a triumph of democratic politics – a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.”

There is no doubt since the time of the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson using dirty tricks defeated incumbent President John Adams.  It was a rancorous campaign that caused Adams and Jefferson, two of the heroes of the revolution and founding fathers of our country,  to have a complete falling out and become bitter political rivals.    There have been major issues at stake that endangered the American political system soon after its birth.   It exploded in the election of 1860 when Lincoln became President and American became a divided nation at war.

Enjoying the Quiet of the Library

And though this is nothing new, I personally don’t find the process to be to my liking at all.   But there is little doubt that the pitfalls of a bickering democracy are preferable to the dictatorship of a one party system.   I silence the negative campaign cacophony by living TV and commercial radio free.  I noticed that even a couple of my sons have basically quit watching TV and don’t have cable subscriptions.   There is hope for America!

It seems to me that since both political parties seem to think they have to play to the extremes of their constituencies in a circus media driven political culture,  most of what we receive from the partisan leadership is all heat and no light.  Maybe that is the only way politicians can get anything done public accusations but behind the scenes some effort to reach a solution.   But I know I would prefer hearing reasoned proposals rather than partisan rhetoric.

At one time some of the leaders of the two parties did agree that $4 Trillion in debt reduction was the goal.  That was a huge step forward.  But the resulting agreement was only about half that, which means we are going to have to listen to the rancor twice, and probably twice as much before they will come up with a package that will convince the world that the US is a safe place to invest your money because it is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.

Next:  The Redistribution of Income Revisited

America & Capitalism: Dr. Frankenstein’s Demonic Lesson

I tend to see the economy as something I’m on the outside of looking in.  I know that is not the reality, like everyone I’m part of the economy, but it is governed by factors, forces and a logic that are beyond my understanding.  I feel the same way about the universe in general which leads me to believe there is a God – there is some kind of logic at work, I just can’t explain, describe or control it.  With the economy however I tend to lower my view of what governs it – it is far more humanly determined than divinely ordained.

Right now the world’s economy (or economies) seems to be under the sway of the gods of capitalism.  My rather limited understanding of capitalism is that its goal and purpose is to increase capital (money, wealth).   Capitalism is not naturally egalitarian – the distribution of this capital is not its main concern, and so it can happen that a few can gain disproportionate control of the vast majority of the capital  (the wealthiest 1% of Americans owns 38.3% of the stock market, the wealthiest 10% owns 81.2% of the stock market according to the Motley Fool.).

The U.S. in general has supported capitalism, and American leaders of all kinds (business, political, economic) believe that America controls capitalism or at least that America can harness capitalism for the good of America or that capitalism and America have the same goals, vision and purpose.  Recently, some very conservative political people have commented on how capitalism actually works for and serves its own purposes: it is most influenced and controlled by international bankers, financiers, and investors, not by American political (or perhaps even economic) interests.  The captains of capitalism may have at times an interest in America, but ultimately their real interest is in increasing capital:  if that parallels American interests OK, but if not they will pursue their goal anyway.  This is the effect of globalization on capitalism; investors, wherever they come from and whatever their interests, now push the worldwide capitalism.

Globalization has challenged the notion that capitalism and America are coterminous with each other.  Though many outside of America refer to globalization as “Americanization”, globalization is showing that it has a life and mind of its own.  Capitalism continues to pursue increasing capital and is quite willing to focus its attention on any part of the world where that can happen best or fastest.  Thus the rise of China, India or Brazil in world economics.

Rana Foroohar in the 20 June 2011 issue of TIME, What U.S. Economic Recovery?  Five Destructive Myths, wrote some ideas that caught my attention.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the fortunes of American companies, which are doing quite well, and American workers, most of whom are earning a lower hourly wage now than they did during the recession. The thing is, companies make plenty of money; they just don’t spend it on workers here.

Half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $2,000 in 30 days without selling some of their possessions. Meanwhile, companies are flush: American firms generated $1.68 trillion in profit in the last quarter of 2010 alone. But many firms would think twice before putting their next factory or R&D center in the U.S. when they could put it in Brazil, China or India. These emerging-market nations are churning out 70 million new middle-class workers and consumers every year. That’s one reason unemployment is high and wages are constrained here at home. This was true well before the recession and even before Obama arrived in office. From 2000 to 2007, the U.S. saw its weakest period of job creation since the Great Depression.

Nobel laureate Michael Spence, author of The Next Convergence, has looked at which American companies created jobs at home from 1990 to 2008, a period of extreme globalization. The results are startling. The companies that did business in global markets, including manufacturers, banks, exporters, energy firms and financial services, contributed almost nothing to overall American job growth. The firms that did contribute were those operating mostly in the U.S. market, immune to global competition — health care companies, government agencies, retailers and hotels. Sadly, jobs in these sectors are lower paid and lower skilled than those that were outsourced.

In some ways what may be happening in world economics is that America has viewed Capitalism as its adoring child, but as Dr. Frankenstein discovered, his “demon” (a term he uses for his “invention”) had a mind of its own.  Dr. Frankenstein’s invention goes off into the world with the poor doctor pursuing his invention rather than controlling it.  It may be that the US is actually in pursuit of capitalism rather than controlling it.  Capitalism is turning its attention to emerging markets where there is more capital to be grown rather than focusing on America, where growth may be possible, but it will be limited growth as compared to these emerging markets.

This of course means that politicians who think they can revive the US economy to the growth levels of the late 20th Century by tax cuts which will lure capitalist interests back to the US may far underestimate what the real situation of the world economy is.  It is possible that America is just not able to produce the kind of capital growth which emerging markets can.  Capitalism’s interest is in growing capital: where its treasure is, so its heart will follow.  That is going to happen no matter how pro-business American politics become.   Investors want ever greater returns, and those are apparently found in emerging markets/economies.   It is not a matter that America’s tax structure are anti-business, the real issue is capitalism will go where it can increase capital the most quickly.

For those who feel that “big government” is the real problem for the American economy, distributist economist John Medaille (TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET) points out that between 1853 and 1940, the pre-Big Government era, the US economy was in recession or depression 40% of the time.  Since the age of big government, the US economy has been in recession 15% of the time.  He says for those who fantasize that there was some golden age before big government where the economy just hummed along without impediment, they had better study history and live in reality rather than in some fictional legend.

I have no solutions for the American economy, as I said at the beginning this is not my area of expertise, and so I’m much more the spectator.  I am also naturally skeptical, and am not at all convinced that politicians of any stripe have the fix for what ails our economy (though I did think The National Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform took the problem seriously and recommends some of the hard decisions which most politicians want to avoid) .  I think some politicians simply underestimate the role globalization has had on capitalist interests, and some overestimate how much their policies can determine capitalism’s interest in the US.  Or maybe politicians just don’t like to acknowledge that there are forces in the world over which they have no control.  More hard realities voters don’t want to face.

Clergy Sexual Abuse is also Child Endangering

The news about the Grand Jury’s investigation into the Philadelphia Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal is shocking:  http://www.npr.org/2011/03/09/134384800/Pa-Archdiocese-Suspends-Priests-Named-In-Sex-Report.   It should also be a warning to all bishops that in the United States, the police and courts are not going to be sympathetic to a church that does not actively and pro-actively work to prevent child sex abuse.   As the news story says, what is happening in Philadelphia is going to send shock waves across America in how the police, prosecuting attorneys and courts deal with clergy sex abuse – in any church or denomination.  Churches which try to hide behind protecting clergy rather than protecting children by claiming the dangers of “false allegations” are going to find themselves in deep trouble with the law and with courts.  As the news reports it (emphases is mine):

“The grand jury report accused a monsignor, three priests and a parochial schoolteacher of abusing kids or failing to prevent abuse by others. It also said that as many as 37 priests remained in active ministry with allegations or reports of inappropriate behavior or sexual abuse of minors.”

Failing to remove priests or bishops against whom allegations of sexual abuse are brought from positions of ministry is now going to be interpreted as a failure to protect children from abuse.  Churches will pay for this failure through summary judgments against them in courts.  Showing some form of sympathy to sexual abusers – moving them to a new location, allowing them to serve under some form of watchfulness or mentoring –  is going to be interpreted as the church failing to protect its own children.

“Anytime a credibly accused child molester is publicly identified or suspended, kids are safer. However, it’s crucial to remember that the grand jury found widespread fault and deceit and recklessness by church officials.”

Church leaders need to be aware of how the courts and the law are going to interpret actions taken for or against both the victims of abuse who make allegations and those alleged to have abused others.   It is not only the abusers themselves whom the courts are now going after – they are looking to hold accountable the church officials responsible for supervising these clergy including bishops.

“This report takes it to another level because they go after the vicar for clergy — that person who has the authority of the Archbishop Justin Rigali to handle priest affairs and priest assignments, and that person now is being called to justice,” says Wall, who has worked on priest sex abuse cases across the country.”

Bishops, priests and parishioners need to make themselves totally familiar with their church’s Sexual Misconduct Policies as well as the laws in the states in which they live.   A failure to adhere to Church policies or to recognize the authority of the state in child sexual abuse cases will prove costly in court to the church and to church leaders personally.

He says the situation in Philadelphia could have ripple effects on litigation nationwide.

“It really does change the face of things, because not only can we look to the bishop or the religious superior, but now we can specifically look at how different lower, midlevel managers could be charged with child endangerment,” Wall says.

The failure by bishops to enforce Church policies regarding sexual misconduct, the failure to remove from ministry sexual abusers and predators is going to be understood by the police and courts as the crime of child endangerment by bishops.

As Orthodox, perhaps we have imagined that the sexual scandals of the Catholic Church will not touch us.  The law of the land however will treat our church, priests and bishops the same as Catholic priests and bishops who engaged in sexual abuse or who failed to protect children.

Bishops and priests are charged to keep watch over their flocks and spiritual children by taking seriously our policies and procedures in dealing with cases of clergy sexual misconduct, of predation, and of abuse.  Those who engage in these immoral and illegal behaviors can indeed repent and express remorse, but they should not be allowed to continue as clergy in the Church under any circumstances.  Bishops should not put themselves in the position of being accused of child endangerment by failing to deal with sexual misconduct, abuse or predatorial behavior by any clergy.  While some may fear this imposes secular/state law over Church canon law in dealing with such problems and curtails the power of the bishops in these matters, there is the reality that we are supposed to be in the world, but not of it.  In the world the Church recognizes certain authority that the state has over its citizens.  Sexual abuse of children is in the eyes of the United States not simply a sin or spiritual problem, it is a crime and the state reserves the right to deal with such crimes committed against its citizens.

“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:11-13)