Thursday, April 28, 2005
I will be posting more fully in a few days and trying something a little different, taking a more personal direction for at least one of my posts. It will be a reflection on this Passover holiday. As some readers already know, I converted to Catholicism about ten years ago. Lately, I have been wrestling with my faith and my mixed emotions over the Church's recent actions. I've also been really looking at, and struggling with, the theology of Christianity and how its core beliefs may be at the center of some of the problems and scandals now occurring, especially in the Catholic Church.
But that's not what I'll be writing about in my next post. As I said, it will be a personal reflection on Passover, both in Fort Lauderdale and at a labor seder that I attended in Washington, DC. But I still have to sort out my thoughts and work through the writing process.
Until, then - and I promise I won't dawdle with it - here is a very thougtful series of blogs by another Catholic, a gay, former Republican, Cradle Catholic. Andrew Sullivan has written with precise logic as well as deeply felt emotion on his own struggles with the selection of Pope Benedict XVI. He also shares this dialogue with Ramesh Ponnuru on his blog. Although the two disagree, there is a degree of civility and mutual respect that is sadly lacking in so much modern discourse. And though I frequently disagree with him, I am deeply touched by Sullivan's own religious struggle.
One interesting concept that Sullivan posits is the ideal of "the conservative of doubt." That is a conservative who, although holding fast to his own beliefs and moral certainties, is willing to tolerate others' views for the sake of civil peace and stability. While rejecting moral relativism, Sullivan applauds simple moderation and mutual respect. The ability to say, I hold my truths with certainty but I recognize that there are others in this world whose views, though just as deeply felt, disagree with mine. So in order to establish liberty and civility, I will reign in my certainty, not because I believe less in truth, but because I oppose tyranny more.
It's a well reasoned position. I would like to propose an equivalency on the left. Although I disagree with much that Sullivan and other conservatives state, especially on economic issues and the war in Iraq, from now on, I will be a liberal of doubt. Because, like Sullivan, I am willing to sacrifice some insistence on truth in order to protect against tyranny. And we have those on the left who are every bit as absolutist and intemperate as the rightists that Sullivan has spoken out against with so much integrity.
Can liberals do less than Sullivan and maintain their own integity?
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Okay, they lost.
I really thought it would be Arinze because he was both very conservative on the social and sexual issues but progressive on economic justice concerns, like Pope John Paul II. And the fact that he was an African might have soften some of the criticism of him from U.S. liberals who are loathe to attack somebody of color from the third world.
I gave the cardinals too much credit . It seems they aren't that subtle or crafty. Instead they chose a sledgehammer whom nobody is going to mind attacking. Andrew Sullivan, over at Beliefnet and in his Daily Dish blog is already mourning the end of Vatican II Catholicism and predicting a civil war in the Church.
He's probably not wrong. Pope Benedict XVI, as Ratzinger will now be known, silenced over 100 theologians while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the politically correct name for the Inquisition. In fact, Sullivan referred to him as "the Grand Inquisitor." I fear he is right.
In addition to silencing theologians, the new Pope was responsible for authoring Domine Ieusus a couple of years ago. In this papal document, he declared that salvation was solely through the Catholic Church and called other Christian denominations "defective." That statement set off a storm of protests from Protestants. He also wrote a recent declaration criticizing "radical femininism" and affirming traditional gender roles.
Not only is he going to be very hardline on Church doctrine, but this is not a tactful man that will earn the goodwill that the late Pope garnered among other religions. And unlike Cardinal Arinze, who was seen as somebody who could promote dialogue and better relations with the Muslim world, Ratzinger also distinguished himself by opposing the admission of Turkey into the European Union, which he considers "Christian Europe." Even many conservatives, however, favor admitting Turkey because they see it as the best example of a pro-western moderate Muslim democracy. This is precisely the type of nation you would want to encourage to participate on the world stage and whose success you would want to hold up to failed Islamic states in the Middle East as an example of what they could become if they moderated their own extremism. In this regard, Turkey is a far better example of western style democracy than Iraq right now.
Ratzinger, however, is a clunker with a political tin ear. Defending pre-Vatican II doctrine was far more important to him than encouraging interfaith dialogue with the Islamic world even at a critical time for world peace.
While I don't share the despair of Sullivan and other progressive Catholics because, unlike them, I've already left the Church, I predict that Pope Benedict will probably be responsible for the diminishment of respect for Catholicism in the non-Christian world and great dissension among Christians.
He will pull up the drawbridge to the moat and send the knights out on a crusade against the modern world That's never worked in the past.
Monday, April 18, 2005
Ah but what a day. The delicately colored pink petals hung heavily from the tulip magnolia trees, like ripe fruit, ready to fall to the ground. The faintly colored pink and white cherry blossoms were gloriously in bloom and the white flowers spread over the dogwood trees like a lacey shawl. The air was scented with the perfume of all the blooming fauna.
The sun warmed the air but a cool breeze kept it from being uncomfortable. It was fine weather. Soon enough, Virginia and Washington, DC will be a thick suspension of humidity and pollution sweltering in 90 degree plus heat. That will be time enough to bolt from the outdoors and take refuge in an air conditioned room, passing my days at the computer, imagining that my words can right the wrongs of the world. My blood will boil, my temperature will soar as high as the temperature outdoors and once again I'll write about the economic travesty that the Bush Administration commits and the travail that the religious right is trying to cause.
But this past weekend was just too pretty, too perfect to stay indoors. And more importantly, it was also too fine to waste on being angry.
I'm getting ready to head out to Florida to visit my ninety year old parents for Passover. They remain faithful and devoutly Jewish.
This is a perfect time for a holiday that celebrates liberation from slavery. The rabbis of the Talmudic period counseled that each person should view the Passover celebration as their personal liberation from Egypt.
What is your personal Egypt (in the metaphorical sense - I don't want to insult actual modern-day Egyptians who are not responsible for the ancient slavery of the Hebrews under the Pharohs)? From what must you come out of bondage?
At a beautiful time of the year that abounds with signs of rebirth and new dawnings, it's not a bad question to ask yourself. What habit of mind, what bad attitude, what situation binds you and would casting it off bring you a renewal?
Happy Passover. May you find peace and freedom.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
As everyone knows by now, DeLay has been investigated by the House Ethics Committee because of his role in the redrawing of Texas Congressional districts and his misuse of a federal government agency to try to track down Texas Democratic legislators who were hiding out in Oklahoma in an attempt to deny the state’s Republicans the quorum they needed in order to redraw those districts more favorably for their party. Actually, it’s called gerrymandering and everybody does it but most politicians don’t manage it with quite as much relish as Texas Republicans. Especially DeLay, apparently.
A district attorney in Texas is investigating the contributors to DeLay’s PAC as well. Apparently, it is a violation of Texas law for PACs to accept funds from some of the big business interests that contributed to his PAC. Several of DeLay’s associates have been indicted and its’ an open question whether Tom DeLay may join them.
And then the newspapers began examining in detail several trips overseas that he made, funded by high rolling lobbyists and Indian tribes with gambling interests. So, no, it has not been an easy couple of years for the House Majority Leader.
In addition, he has come under public scrutiny for his role in Congress’s interference with the Terri Schiavo affair. It is pretty hard for him to justify his bringing special legislation in an attempt to override several judges’ decisions to remove Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube, especially since he and his family did essentially the same thing when his own father was in the hospital after having a tragic accident that left him brain dead.
Although DeLay has a long history of strong Christian convictions, including staunch support for pro-life causes, this time I think his continuing war with the judiciary is more part of a strategy to divert attention from his ethics problems. It’s easier to use misdirection to get the press and public focused on his battle with the judges over the morality of end-of-life issues than to answer questions about his own morality. After all, what else are ethical lapses like possible bribery, conflicts of interest, and interfering with state elections but moral issues?
But another strategy that DeLay and his supporters are trying to use, as reported in last Saturday’s Washington Post, is to blame the liberal press and Democrats for publicizing his Congressional junkets and other questionable ethical lapses. Somehow, though, I don’t think “the vast left wing conspiracy” strategy is a particularly effective one.
He might, in fact, want to ask Hillary Clinton how well it played out for her and Bill to blame Republicans for the former President’s own moral lapses. Well, he got impeached. As did Richard Nixon when he too failed to convince voters that “he wasn’t a crook” but that the liberal media (those nattering nabobs of negativity) were out to get him. Paranoia can only take you so far in the absence of genuine innocence.
If DeLay goes down, he could well take the rest of the Republicans who are lining up to follow the game plan. A word of advice – yeah, I know, why the hell am I giving free advice to Republicans? Mostly because I know they’re so arrogant they won’t take it anyway.
But, it’s good advice.
What the Republicans and other conservative supporters of DeLay need to do is distance themselves from his moral problems without deserting him personally. Here’s the statement they need to make:
“We welcome a thorough investigation of all charges because we sincerely believe that our friend Tom DeLay will be cleared. By shining the bright light of truth on these charges, it will illumine all the dark places where innuendo and accusation hide. We believe in our friend’s innocence.
“However, even if there is any truth to any of these charges, Tom DeLay is not the Republican Party, the conservative cause (choose whatever you like here). He is a member of our group, but only one among many dedicated members. And our ideals are still valid. Our ideas have helped this nation and they still hold true, whether Tom is innocent or not. And we all hope he is proved innocent.”
A statement similar to that would do two things.
It would, first of all, establish his colleagues’ loyalty. Which is not a bad thing. These people have been his friend. There is nothing wrong with sincerely hoping that all the charges are wrong and that he is as innocent as they claim he is. And loyalty will take you far. Most people admire it. There are people in whom we believe strongly and will stand behind no matter what. And we hope there are people like that in our own lives, willing to believe utterly in us.
However, such a statement also establishes that DeLay’s supporters are moral. While they stand behind their friend and hope for his innocence, they also welcome investigation. They believe in him, not in covering up for him. That’s a huge difference.
The real question though is “is it true?”
I think not. Which is why they may all go down. Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut said it best, “it has taken Republicans only 10 years to get as arrogant as the Democrats were after 30 or 40 years.”
However long it took them to get that arrogant, they’ve played too many cards wrong lately, Social Security, Terri Schiavo, and now the ethics investigations. It’s foolish to think the public isn’t watching. It was the fatal mistake Jim Wright and the Democrats made in the 90s. And it cost them dearly as it will now cost the Republicans. Remember, they rode into power in 1994 by opposing exactly these sorts of ethical problems and legislative overreaching by the Democratic leadership. Hopefully, the Democrats have learned a hard lesson here, and it may be that it is the Republicans’ turn to learn it.
Monday, April 11, 2005
I have a word of advice for the liberals. If, when the white smoke clears, you don't have Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger or Cardinal Francis Arinze as your new leader, consider it a big win.
Pope John Paul II was one of the longest reigning popes and he had plenty of time and opportunity to appoint fellow traditionalists and to shape them in his mold. So, it's already a stacked deck.
If I were a politically smart cardinal (and make no mistake about it, the Vatican is full of politically sophisticated clerics), I'd pick Arinze.
Besides the fact that, like the most recent Pope, he has a genuine compassion for the poor and has reached out to the Muslim community of his home, Nigeria, which is going to be very important to the future of interfaith relations, his appointment will slow down the momentum of the American left and knock them off their game.
It would put them in a real quandary because American leftists hate going up against blacks, especially Third World blacks. Acutely sensitive to charges of racism, they would try to straddle the fence, attempting a delicate balancing act between opposing Arinze on the issues, and launching a personal attack on him as they sometimes did John Paul II. They would be loathe to come out swinging in a real battle for fear of looking bigoted or elitist.
I think some of the cardinals from Latin America, Asia and Africa are tired of having the West dictate its ideals and morality to them. They are eager to reassert a more traditional Catholicism. And as with the African and Asian leaders of the worldwide Anglican community, they are genuinely offended by liberal western morality, which seems to go against the very teachings of Scripture as they interpret it.
I also think some of what is behind all the honors and accolades being heaped upon Cardinal Bernard Law in this week's ceremonies, where he has played such a prominent role, is that the international community of cardinals is eager to put the clamorous Americans in their place.
Many of these cardinals are not sympathetic to the child abuse scandal involving American priests. Indeed some have openly blamed the whole scandal on our media and an anti-Catholic plot. They show short patience for American Catholics, whom they consider disloyal for bringing these pedophile priests to public attention and to legal authorities.
There is outright disbelief that it happened at all and scorn for the victims. That's what is fueling all the public honors being award to the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. This is the cardinals' way of closing ranks behind one of their own and rubbing the spoiled and overprivileged Americans' noses in it.
So, when the puffs of white smoke finally rise up over the Vatican, don't be surprised by the outcome. However, now might be a good time for American Catholics and all other Catholics who are genuinely disgusted at a Church that protects child molesters, reviles victims, and values its own power and perogatives more than truth to start thinking of an exit strategy.
You finally have to ask yourselves, as I did, does the Holy Spirit really guide these people and was this really intended to be the only road to salvation, keeping your mouth shut and blindly obeying men you know are both wrong and arrogant?
Saturday, April 09, 2005
While on a tour, stumping for Social Security reform and private accounts, President Bush visited the vault where the Social Security Trust Fund is stored. His mission was to make the point that there is no actual money in the trust fund, merely IOUs.
Well, the IOUs in question are in fact U.S. Treasury bonds. Investors all over the world, including foreign governments, hold Treasury bonds. When a state, local or federal government or even a business offers a bond, it is essentially borrowing money and issuing a piece of paper promising to pay back the loan with interest. That's all a bond is.
There is, in fact, a problem that too much American debt is held by foreigners and if they lose faith in America’s credit and its ability and willingness to pay back its debt, these investors will cash in their bonds before maturity even if it means losing interest and paying a penalty. Better, after all, to lose some interest than to lose both interest and your principal if the U.S. government really intends to default on its debt.
Now, if a few nervous investors did this, it wouldn’t create much of a problem for an economy as large as that of the United States. But if a very large number of investors with a significant amount of bonds all called in their IOUs at the same time, we would have trouble paying them all off at once. It would be like an old fashioned panic and a run on the bank.
Just as no bank actually has all of its depositors’ money on hand and couldn’t pay out everybody all at once, if every bondholder demanded his money at the same time, it would wreck our economy and you and I would be living in tent city alongside Donald Trump. We’d all lose our shirts.
However, the truth is most sophisticated investors are not worried about their Treasury bonds. U.S. treasuries have “the full faith and credit of the United States” behind them. And despite President Bush’s clowning, that is more than a mere slogan. America has never, ever, defaulted on its debt. Even in the darkest days of the Great Depression of the 1930s, America always met its debt obligations.
But while sophisticated investors know this fact, many average Americans don’t and that’s whom this cheap stunt was aimed at. It was meant to convince you and me, with a startling visual display, that Social Security was in more trouble than we realized.
But the truth is that if Social Security were to be privatized, we would want to have the very same IOUs that the President just made fun of in our own private accounts. In fact, one of the proposals to minimize the risk of private accounts is something called a lifecycle account, which would automatically balance the account to include the proper mix of stocks and bonds – or worthless IOUs, to the naïve citizen watching the President’s fun photo op.
Here’s the truth about stocks, bonds, investing and lifecycle accounts.
A life cycle account automatically re-balances an investor’s retirement portfolio as he gets older and closer to retirement.
They are a good tool for the average person who simply doesn’t have time to study the stock market, research corporations’ profit margin, calculate profit to earnings ratios and returns on investment, and learn investment theory and strategy. This includes most people with a full time job and a personal life – that’s why there are professionals who get money for being stockbrokers, investment specialists and financial planners. Coincidentally, all rich people, unless they are professionals at it themselves, hire these people to manage their wealth. Investing should come with a warning, “if you are not a trained professional, do not try this yourself at home.”
The theory behind lifecycle accounts (and it’s a good theory for investors even if they take the “do it yourself” approach) is that the younger the worker, with the most years to work, the more of their retirement nest egg should be put into stocks. That’s because stocks outperform bonds and give a higher return for your investment. But they are also riskier than bonds. The stock market, and individual stocks and mutual funds, are more subject to the ups and downs of the market, thus they are more volatile. If you hit a bad patch in the market when you are relatively young, you can recoup your loss. The stock market never stays permanently down. But it also doesn’t stay permanently up.
So, as you get closer to retirement age, you want to take less risk because you have less time to make up any loss. That’s when a smart investor, or a lifecycle account, rebalances the portfolio to reflect more caution, also called managing risk. That’s the point when there should be more treasuries and other bonds than stocks in the portfolio.
One word of caution, though, a portfolio should always contain a mix of stocks and bonds. Even younger workers should never take the riskiest options since saving and investing for retirement is a long-term process and you always want to keep your account growing not shrinking. And bonds sometimes are losers too, so at any age, balance is important. But over all, bonds are a safer investment and as you get closer to retirement, the balance of the portfolio should be weighted in their favor.
So, this means that the very bonds that Bush tried to imply were worthless IOUs are the same bonds you and I would actually want in our private accounts. And any investor who doesn’t realize this is frankly too inexpert to be managing his own retirement account. And believe me, many people are that naïve. Which is why a lot of people, including me, oppose private accounts.
Another reason I’m opposed to them is because you only get out what you can afford to put in. Studies have shown that the wealthy benefit handsomely from private accounts because they have more money to put into them in the first place. If everybody can put in 4 percent, but 4 percent of $500,000 is more than 4 percent of $50,000, of course a wealthy person is going to do better with a private account than with Social Security, while you and I won't. It's simple mathematics.
And even Einstein would probably have had to admit that “the miracle” of compound interest could only take you so far. Not that I’m trying to demean compound interest. It is a remarkable economic concept that can benefit anybody smart enough to save some money. But even with this, poor people who just don’t have much money to put into their accounts will do better, in the long run, in the present Social Security system.
So will most of the middle class. The truth is the stock market is too dicey to risk your retirement nest egg in and the cautious approach that lifecycle accounts promote doesn’t always provide enough growth to match or do better than the present system either. In fact, two countries that have already gone to systems of private accounts, England and Chile, have found them to provide disappointing returns for the average worker, and some English economists are suggesting that Britain change to a retirement system similar to our Social Security.
A decent society provides for its weakest and neediest citizens. And it keeps faith with its elderly. When somebody who has worked hard all his life, raised a family, paid taxes and contributed to the common good is too old to work, society should not throw him away like a used paper towel. At least, that’s what I believe.
Who knows what the compassionate conservatives, like George Bush, believe. They certainly don't believe in honesty or Bush would not have pulled his stupid pet trick at that vault.
Monday, April 04, 2005
The latest payroll figures, as reported by both The Washington Post and The New York Times on Saturday, are pretty dismal. Although the official unemployment rate declined from 5.4 percent to 5.2 percent for this past month, only 110,000 new jobs were created for the same time period.
The unemployment figure is actually a deceptive measure of the number of people out of work, however, because it is only a count of those still collecting unemployment insurance and actively looking for a job. Discouraged workers who have given up and are no longer looking for employment and who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits are not counted. So, most economists put the actual number of jobless Americans at a much higher rate than the official figure. Some have estimated it to be as high as 7 or 8 percent.
In addition, there is a troubling demographic shift in the employment rate. The amount of 55 to 64 year olds holding jobs has increased by 3.4 percent while the number of 25 to 34 year olds who are employed has decreased by 2 percent. As Gary Burtless, a labor economist with the Brookings Institute, points out, that trend does not bode well for the future earning power or economic vitality of younger workers.
In addition, I think it has serious ramifications for America’s political stability and security. That is a topic I will get back to. But first, we need to consider some of the reasons for the stagnant job growth.
It is puzzling to many economists because at the same time that jobs are not being created, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is a measure of the country’s economic output, has been expanding at a healthy clip, averaging about 3 to 3.5 percent growth a year. Business is growing and the demand for goods and services is rising. So why the perplexing stagnation of job expansion?
Economists and business leaders blame it on a host of factors, including the rise of medical insurance costs, higher fuel prices, inflation, and the falling value of the dollar. Also, many businesses are simply reluctant to hire after the last bruising recession. Some still have an excess capacity of both goods and labor to wring out.
I think all of those are probably valid explanations for why the payroll increase has not kept pace with the robust growth of the economy and the strength of businesses, which are recording healthy profits. However, I think there are two other reasons for job stagnation that economists are not discussing, at least not in the two articles that I’ve just read. But these causes have been around for a while and have gotten plenty of coverage elsewhere in the business press in the recent past. They are outsourcing and productivity.
Outsourcing still accounts for a small percentage of the stubborn unemployment problem, but it is a significant if not large source of the current problem. And it is expected to grow as a factor in coming years, so it’s worth noting and paying attention to. America’s political and business leaders have to find ways to make it profitable to keep jobs at home, not just to prevent misery and political discontent but also because the growing trade deficit is going to come back to hurt business too. America’s demand for goods manufactured overseas has not abated despite the falling dollar. Of course, even if we all wanted to buy American made products to save our own jobs, where would we find a pair of shoes, a handbag, a shirt made in the U.S.? It’s impossible. We now make so little over here that reversing the trade deficit is going to prove to be a stubborn problem that individual consumers can’t solve even through organized “buy America” efforts anymore. We are going to need the government and business leaders to make a concerted effort to bring manufacturing back to our own shores.
But it is a real blow to America’s morale that even high tech, well paying service jobs are now leaving our shores. Everybody, by now, knows that the crisp American accent they hear from their customer service representative on the phone is really coming from somebody in Bangalore, India making a lot less than the person in Iowa or Georgia used to earn.
Although all of that hurts our economy and our people, there is a more stubborn, systemic reason for the lack of job growth. That is the productivity of the American worker. The truth is for years now Americans have been working harder and producing more goods and services with fewer employees. Higher output of goods and services with lower labor costs have translated into greater profit for companies. In theory, as they become more profitable, the businesses should expand, thus needing more labor. With this increase in demand, should come more jobs and higher pay.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked out. The whole law that higher productivity raises the worker’s standard of living along with the business owner’s economic well-being may be obsolete. Increased automation and high tech solutions may be taking the place of human labor. As one example, when was the last time you called a business for service and got a live human being rather than a recording on the first try? Or on any subsequent selections of the automated menu? More business transactions are taking place on the Internet. All of that is raising productivity for businesses while lowering labor costs for them. And that, unfortunately, has taken a greater chunk out of the labor market than outsourcing. Nor is it going to change any time soon. In fact, automated services will probably increase as more people get comfortable with self-service check out lines at supermarkets and discount stores.
All of this has also led to wages being flat for years. As The New York Times observed, in a glutted labor market, workers have little leverage or bargaining power to get higher pay. So their very productivity and efficiency are hurting them.
All of this is creating a dangerous and destabilizing trend, as I noted above. During the Twentieth Century economic turmoil in South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, was soon followed by revolutions, coups, or other violent political upheavals. Of course, there are probably exceptions to this rule, but it’s been true in enough cases that it’s worth worrying about, especially if the demographic trend noted above that younger people are more apt to be jobless than their elders is true.
Nothing is more destabilizing to a nation than a large population of educated and unemployed or underemployed young males. When these young men see clearly that they are the losers in a system that handsomely rewards a small, elite investor-business class, while devaluing the worth and dignity of work for the vast majority, the way is clear for a wrenching societal resentment to flare up like a fire in the gut of these youth, coiling up until it hits the dynamite cap of violent ideology that explodes into a dead-end revolutionary movement.
Indeed, right now, such economic dissatisfaction is the very fuel of modern terrorist movements, whether it is Skinheads on the march in Germany, recruits for al Queda increasing in the Middle East and Europe, militias festering in the hills and valleys of Idaho and Montana, or drug lords and gangs duking it out in deadly turf battles and drive-by shootings in America’s inner cities. The coming explosion will be set off by the sparks of discontent from intelligent young men whose skills are under utilized in productive business enterprises and whose sense of self-worth is undermined by lack of meaningful employment.
In such an upheaval, it would be foolish for the rich to think that they alone could escape its consequences. With their jet-set lifestyles and their international conglomerates, they may believe that they could fly themselves out of harms’ way. But a rising tide of greed and globalism is sinking the hopes and dashing the aspirations of young people all over the world. Soon there will be no place where even the wealthy can flee to and no place where they will be safe from the wave of terrorism that will rise to drown them.
America needs a job and a pay raise. And the world needs a break from the debilitating effects of selfishness, greed and free trade run amuck. We all need to rise to the top again, rather than race to the bottom.