A Coalition of the Unwilling

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        Rod Normand reports from Kabul in the New York Times, that in his farewell speech, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan stated that "America does not want peace in Afghanistan, because it had its own agendas and goals here." Karzai continued "I have always said this: that if America and Pakistan want peace, it is possible to bring peace to Afghanistan."

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        In a previous story in the Times, Thomas Erdbrink ("For Many Iranians, the 'Evidence' Is Clear: ISIS Is an American Invention," Sept 10, 2014) reported from Tehran that "Iranians are as obsessed as Americans these days with the black-clad gangs roaming Iraq and Syria and killing Shiites and other 'infidels' in the name of Sunni Islam. At the supermarket, in a shared taxi or at a family gathering, conversations often turn to the mysterious group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and how it came to be. And for most Iranians, the answer is obvious: the United States."

   

   In the Boston Globe, Brian Bender reports ("Stolen US-made equipment a key focus in ISIS fight") that "Over the past six weeks, US warplanes destroyed at least three dozen US-made Humvees that were by stolen by the Islamic State. Earlier this week, Islamic State forces used Humvees to overrun an Iraqi army post."  Bender further reported that "The Islamic State's reliance on American-made equipment has highlighted concerns about plans to supply $500 million in high-tech weapons to the rebels known as the Free Syrian Army. Congress approved the plan but the majority of the Massachusetts delegation opposed it, with some basing their opposition partly on concerns about where the arms may end up."


        The hallucinations of President Karzai, those of many Iranians, and the U.S.'s inadvertent arming of ISIS depict the magnitude of the challenge that this country and its tax-payers have permitted President Obama to commit us to, without informed discussion or debate.  If history is any kind of a guide, the president's attempts to cobble together an alliance that would somehow bring peace and order to a disorderly part of the world will prove to be naive and unlikely to succeed. 


        The  Arab allies upon whom president Obama must depend - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E., Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq as well as the non-Arab Turks - are riven by conflicting tribal loyalties, increasing hostilities between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and festering grievances against the West and its secular democracies that date back centuries.  Among the historic grievances that many Muslims and jihadists often invoke are the Crusades and the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, and the colonization of the Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco by the French and British in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.


         Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the rise of autocratic governments, pervasive economic backwardness, illiteracy and intense anger spawned by the emergence of the State of Israel - exacerbated by Israel's mistreatment of its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian population in its occupied territories - have created an unstable region in which the grudging acceptance of other religious faitrhs has all but disappeared. With the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, during the past seventy years the Middle East has become virtually depopulated of Catholic, Orthodox and Nestorian Christians, while the few who remain endure constant discrimination and persecution. Sadly, the Middle East - which was the birthplace of Christianity - has become hostile to the adherents of a major religion whose presence there predated Islam by more than six centuries.


         Today in the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by fanatics as exemplified by ISIS, has made the Middle East even more unstable. Islam's insistence that it alone has an exclusive claim to the Truth - a Truth is derived entirely from the Qur'an which is accepted as the unmediated word of the living God - has made the instability even more intractable. 


         Islam does not present a challenge to the Western world as a political philosophy. Rather, it represents a challenge posed by a set of religious dogmas that have been hijacked by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists whom Saudi Arabia's theocrats have continued to support through their funding of madrassas throughout the Muslim world. 


        The religious extremists who have been brain-washed by the madrassas insist upon interpreting the Qur'an as a rigid and unforgiving set of religious commands. Their fanaticism has widened the chasm that separates Western secular democracies from much of the Muslim world, imposed insuperable obstacles that impede the development of civil societies and their institutions, and constrained critical economic development.Their demand that truly observant Muslims must focus upon the next life rather than the present condemns millions of Muslims to lives of penury and misery, and left many with only rage and a false sense of victimization to sustain them.


         Absent the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation - or the Thirty Years War followed by an edict of toleration such as in the Peace of Westphalia - Muslims throughout the Middle East are not likely to embrace the idea of toleration, as a central social concept, anytime soon.Until a new generation of Arab leaders emerge who are willing endorse the idea of religious toleration unequivocally and to also acknowledge the importance of other Western notions - e.g.  - that social change can best be achieved through political discussion, through the emergence of new ideas, and by the evolution of policies - the chasm between the West and Islam will remain wide and deep, and the Middle East will continue to be consumed by internecine conflicts.


      If ISIS and the multitude of other Muslim extremists are to be defeated, the Arab countries themselves - and not the U.S. or the other Western democracies - must rise to the challenge since they are the entities that are directly threatened. Their soldiers and theirs alone should provide any "boots on the ground" since the presence of Western "infidel" soldiers only serves to reinforce the false narrative of Muslim victimization by Crusaders. 


        For their part, the United States and the other Western democracies should show infinite patience, and they might consider collectively adopting a policy of containment and quarantine, coupled with limited, targeted strikes where and when needed. The expansion of the scope of air strikes against ISIS into Syria and the siren calls for more ground involvement by U.S. troops are counter-productive and inimical to this country's best interests.


        In the long run, overreaction, bluster and jingoism, a President who is too fearful to say no, a craven Congress, a supplicant media, and a profoundly uninformed public serve only to engorge the ever- expanding security-surveillance-military-industrial-welfare-through-warfare state and its beneficiaries to the detriment of urgent, unmet domestic needs.


     The United States has little capacity or credibility to create stability in a geographic region of the world where we are viewed as unwanted intruders by a majority of the Arab population. President Obama needs to be reminded that power brings with it the responsibility to exercise it wisely and appropriately, and that sometimes restraint is the most effective and prudent foreign policy.      


When Economists Become Theologians

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  The University of Paris economist Thomas Piketty has marshaled a wealth of impressive data in his book Capital in the 21st Century. From an historical  perspective, the data shows that the market-based economies in the Western World - save for the brief, unique period caused by the economic disruptions of two world wars - have spawned increasing economic inequality.

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        Piketty also predicts that, without vigorous public intervention in the marketplace - as the rate of return on investments continues to exceed the rate of economic growth - economic inequality will continue to accelerate. Not surprisingly, Piketty has been denounced on the right as a neo-Marxist or a dangerous social democrat because he has had the audacity to suggest, as a basic proposition of democratic governance, that economic policy should be subordinate to political policy.  

         Simultaneously, Piketty's colleague and collaborator at the London School of Economics, Gabriel Zucman, has reported in one of his many studies, Tax Evasion on Offshore Profits and Wealth, that U.S. corporations now declare 20%  of their profits in tax  havens - a  tenfold increase since the 1980s - and that tax avoidance policies have reduced corporate tax revenues by up to a third.  At the global level, Zucman argues that 8% of the world's personal financial wealth is now being held offshore, costing more than $200 bilion to governments annually and that decisions to shift to tax havens and offshore wealth havens are increasing.


        In the current economic debate, Piketty and Zucman - along with a few other prominent exceptions such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz - remain the outliers in a profession that is overwhelmingly dominated by defenders of the status quo and conventional economic wisdom. One such pathetic example of the latter is Tyler Cowan, an economist at George Mason University.


        In an op ed piece in the Sunday edition of the New York Times last month "(All in All, a More Egalitarian World," July 20, 2014). Cowan enthusiastically cited a study which noted that, although economic inequality was rising in countries such as the U.S., "the economic surges of China, India and some other nations have been among the most egalitarian developments in history."

 

        Cowan piously concluded that "the true egalitarian should follow thee economist's inclination to seek

wealth-maximizing policies, and that means less worrying about inequality within the nation...

[C]apitalism and economic growth are continuing their historic roles as the greatest and most effective equalizers

the world has ever known."        

  

        In a prior book, Average is Over, Cowan extolled the rise of what he chronicles as the "big earners" in the emerging meritocracy that he foresees. He also argues that, rather than expand the safety net, governments should curtail spending.


        As an alternative and to maintain civic peace, Cowan suggests that local governments might offer engaging distractions to those whom he has identified in his Darwinian dystopia as the "big losers" and the "zero marginal product" workers. These "big losers" and "zero marginal product" workers presumably include the 162,000 U.S. architects and engineers whose jobs were shipped to third-world counties between 2000 and 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the 180,000 computer IT and programming professionals who, according to Yale Univesity's Jacob Hacker, lost their jobs between 2000 and 2004.


        Perhaps taking an unconscious cue from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Cowan proposes a palliative that he suggests would enable the 49% mooching class that Mitt Romney decried to live contented lives, albeit with reduced means and with substantially reduced expectations: "What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living? We would build some 'tiny homes' [that]...might be about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. We would build some very modest dwellings there, as we used to build in the 1920s. We would also build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.  The quality of the water and electrical standards might be low by American standards, but we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless..."  


        Cowan's paen to globalization and the onward march of capitalism blithely ignores the systematic, well-documented failures of the capitalist system he extols. His apologia offers small solace to the millions of Americans whose jobs have been lost to out-sourcing and the de-industrialization of the U.S.; his soothing entreaty that, in the long run, everything will work out nicely - some fine day - ignores Keynes's sage observation that "In the long run, we will all be dead."  One also suspects that Cowan would be less sanguine about the economic landscape he surveys if he were informed that his tenured  position at George Mason University were about to be converted into an adjunct faculty position.  

                

        The defenders of the classical market model of unbridled competition still refuse to concede that, left to their own devices, entrepreneurs and corporations inevitably engage in practices that have harmful consequences to the public. Their anti-regulatory biases are not diminished, despite the fact that their business activities are heavily subsidized by taxpayer money - e.g. roads, trains, airports, and intangible infrastructure such as public education, employee training, R&D, favorable tax policies, legal immunity for business entities, and protection for trade secrets and intellectual property.


         These guardians of the economic canon also continue to discount the evidence that shows that entrepreneurs and corporations know that, if they are unable to escape the ultimate consequences of their poor decisions - if all else fails - they will be allowed to screw their creditors, discharge their debts in bankruptcy, and re-emerge with a new corporate persona. The sole goal is to maximize profits to enrich themselves and their shareholders. Given a mind-set that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, they and their economist defenders remain oblivious to the adverse effects of poverty, lack of health care, pollution, climate change and to basic principles of social justice.


         Ultimately, the entire process is self-defeating and creates a negative-sum game: As entrepreneurs seek to maximize their profits by paying the lowest possible costs for labor and materials, the middle class is hollowed out. As the income of the middle class contracts, aggregate demand is reduced. As domestic spending contracts, the purchase of goods and services contract. Without the intervention of the government into market economies, the buyers and sellers of goods and services become locked in mutually destructive death throes.


        All of the empirical evidence, Cowan and other apologists notwithstanding, suggests that out-sourcing, deregulation, austerity, the commitment to the myth of "free-trade," -i.e. "laissez-faire" in trade policies - and reduced government regulation have been major contributing factors to the loss of manufacturing, stagnating wages and the growing impoverishment of the former middle class.


        The net effect of current economic policies - sadly endorsed by Democrats as well as Republicans-  has been an extraordinary concentration of wealth and power into the hands of financiers and other moneyed interests who have become the winners in this game of  economic Russian roulette. As a result, the decisions and predilections of fewer and fewer individuals now determine the outcomes in the American economy, while the overwhelming majority of Americans have little ability to influence macro-economic trends or economic and political policies.


         In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith bemoaned the existence of "private affluence and public squalor" in the America. The contrast has only grown worse in the subsequent decades. The disparity between the few who are wealthy and the many who are poor has widened alarmingly in the United States since the advent of the Reagan era and the kind of "trickle-down" economics to which he and his advisers subscribed.


        In his General Theory, Keynes observed that "the ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the salves of some defunct economist....But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests which are dangerous for good or evil."


        Political and economic philosophies, unlike religious dogmas, are neither true nor false per se, irrespective of their competing attempts to comprehend and to explain the Truth about the human condition. Rather, these philosophies help us to define our understanding of ourselves as political beings - who we think we are, and what we think we can or cannot achieve as participants in the political process.  Paradoxically, through these political and economic philosophies, we simultaneously modify and recreate social reality  - "the shared field of meaning" - in which we participate.


        Equally important, because competing political and economic philosophies inevitably suggest specific policies, they have important, teleological consequences. For that reason, the consequences of any particular policy suggested by a particular political or economic philosophy can be observed, measured, and tracked.


        As such, the political, economic and ethical effects of the policies and programs can be scrutinized and evaluated. Policy makers and informed citizens then become able to determine whether the respective claims and promises of a particular political or economic concept should be implemented as public policy, and whether the effects will be beneficial or inimical to the health and vitality of the civil society.


        There are no easy solutions to the present economic malaise, but it is a serious mistake to confuse the purported "laws of economics"  with the laws of physics as so many do. Economic systems do not operate in a vacuum; and there is nothing inevitable about the continuation of economic trends. Economic systems and political systems are the products of human imagination and ideology as shaped by historical forces. 


        Because there is nothing inevitable about economic trends and developments, they can be countered by intelligent and carefully crafted monetary and fiscal policies as well as intelligent legislation. In extremis, even the "laws of economics" can be suspended by operation of law, as was required during World Wars I and II.  


        The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy has long since ceased to explain present day economic reality, but the intellectual chains of that received wisdom from long since dead economists continue to control the public narrative. Unfettered competition, based upon allegedly free market decisions made by solitary actors in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers, is a myth that does not create individual opportunity for most Americans, nor has it maximized business opportunities.

        Rather, the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.


        The critical need in today's politics is to restore the proper balance between the pursuit of wealth - as a purely private activity - and the public interest. In a democracy, citizens have the ability and the right to imagine and to demand new political, economic and social structures and arrangements that are rooted in a shared commitment to social justice and that also recognize the mutual obligations that we owe to one another as members of a political community. By law, policies can designed and imposed to protect the rights of workers to join unions, to create an industrial policy, to re-impose protective barriers and selective tariffs (just as China, South Korea and Japan now do), to enact a tax code that punishes out-sourcing and domestic disinvestment and provides incentives for job-creation and domestic reinvestment.


        Market economies are affected by the frailties and the foibles of human actors. Although many of these actors are motivated by selfish, short-sighted concerns, the consequences of their actions harm everyone else. It is for that reason that regulation in the public interest and investment in public goods by the government - as the agent of the people in a democracy - are essential antidotes to the temper the excesses of capitalism and to create the foundations for a truly just society.

   

The Brouhaha over Immigration and the Border

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         The current brouhaha over child refugees from Central America appearing at the U.S. Mexican border has spawned lots of invective and strident commentary but provided little in the way of insight.

     


             By way of background, shortly before he left office, on Dec. 23, 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The purpose of this bipartisan measure, named after a 19th century British abolitionist, was to extend and increase efforts to prevent and prosecute human trafficking and protect the victims of trafficking. The legislation contained numerous provisions that regulate the treatment of children, unaccompanied by adults, who present themselves at the U.S. border by the Department of Homeland Security.


             Under the law, the Customs and Border Patrol are required to turn undocumented children from Central America over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. Because of the turmoil in Central America, the law mandates that HHS hold the refugees humanely until they can be released to a "suitable family member" in the United States. HHS is also required to ensure "to the greatest extent practicable" that these detained children "have counsel to represent them in legal proceedings " who could then explain to them how to apply for asylum or to find other ways to remain legally in the U.S.


              The complexities and difficulties of enforcing this law need to be viewed in the light of the overall immigration program in the U.S. which all sides concede is broken beyond redemption. Not surprisingly, this country's unwillingness to control its borders through sensible immigration policies - that could include an expanded guest-worker program, preferences for highly skilled foreigners, a mandatory E-Verify system for all employers and national identification cards similar to those issued in almost all of Western European democracies - provides fertile ground for the worst kind of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria. 


            Never one to miss on opportunity to pander to the basest instincts of those people who find her appealing, on July 14, 2014, GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann complained to Van Jones on CNN's Crossfire that "since April, we've had an invasion of 300-500 thousand foreign nationals." After Jones pressed her about her use of the word "invasion," Bachmann chose to obfuscate with a classic non sequitur: "My heart is broken for a female college student in Minnesota who was raped, murdered and mutilated by a foreign national who came into our country," Bachmann stated in an effort to somehow link the surge of unaccompanied refugee children to increased crimes. "We had a school bus full of kids in Minnesota - four children were killed on that school bus because an illegal alien driving a van went into that school bus."


             To his credit, Van Jones challenged her. "There are lines that can't be crossed here. I'm sorry, congresswoman. Are you gonna scapegoat children for the crime of this despicable person?"  Bachmann, ever the demagogue, remained unabashed, "Don't scapegoat the American people. Van, don't scapegoat the American people right now who are losing jobs."


            A few weeks later, Rep. Bachmann - much like proverbial Senator John Yerkes Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate who announced, after examining the label on a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, that there were 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense - conjured up an even more preposterous theory to explain the presence of so many unaccom-panied minors at the southern U.S. border.  On July 30, 2014, she appeared on "WallBuilders Live," a far-right radio program, and now claimed that the reason President Obama hasn't solved the refugee crisis at the U.S. southern border is because he wants to use the child refugees for "medical research." "President Obama is trying to bring all of those foreign nationals, those illegal aliens to the country and he has said that he will put them in the foster care system," Bachmann insisted.


              "[W]e can't imagine doing this, but if you have a hospital and they are going to get millions of dollars in government grants if they can conduct medical research on somebody, and a Ward of the state can't say 'no' - a little kid can't say 'no' if they're a ward of the state so here you could have this institution getting millions of dollars from our government to do medical experimentation and a kid can't even say 'no.' It's sick," Bachmann intoned.


             Rep. Bachmann is not the only politician who appears to have become unhinged by the contretemps over refugees. On July 16, 2014, Leslie Larson, a columnist for the New York Daily News, described an incident that occurred in Arizona. Adam Kwasman, a state legislator and Tea Party candidate for Congress, joined a demonstration of anti-immigrant protestors the day before on the road to Oracle, Arizona.


             The demonstrators were outraged of the prospect of migrant children being sent to a nearby shelter. Kwasman, reportedly disdainful of President Obama's efforts to address the border crisis, saw a yellow school bus approach and tweeted a picture with the caption, "This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law." 


              Kwasman claimed that the children who were being bused to the shelter appeared to be sad and fearful.  "I was actually able to see some of the children in the buses. The fear on their faces," he told a local reporter after the incident, according to the Arizona Republic. The reporter then questioned him about what children he was referring to. "I saw a school bus with plenty of children on it, so I'm assuming that was the bus."  After the reporter pointed out the youngsters on the bus he saw were in fact local schoolchildren en route to a YMCA camp, Kwasman said, "They were sad too. I apologize, I didn't know. I was leaving when I saw them. So if that was a school bus - people are not happy down the line."


             A more disturbing incident was chronicled by Kate Taylor and Jeffrey Singer of the New York Times ("In Queens, Immigrants Clash With Residents of New Homeless Shelter," July 25, 2014). They reported that, in early June of this year, the City of New York began to move homeless families into a defunct hotel in Elmhurst, Queens. The city's decision prompted a series of protests, culminating in one on July 22, 2014 that drew approximately 500 people. The crowd was said to comprise, among others, grandmothers, small children, Chinese immigrants and the president of a local Republican club, all of whom complained that Mayor de Blasio had trampled upon their rights.


             The local residents expressed their fears about the presence of the new arrivals and cited rumors of shoplifting from a local supermarket and episodes of public urination and panhandling. These were the kind of antisocial acts that, the residents contended, had been unheard-of in their neighborhood until now. 


            During the protest that night, one of the organizers spoke through a bullhorn in Mandarin, as a few people looked out the windows of the hotel. "Speak in English!" a woman who was leaning out of a window was reported to have shouted, and held up her phone, possibly to videotape the protest. "Homeless with money" was the response of a protester to the woman with phone.


             Pathetically, because many of those opposed the use the hotel as a shelter in Elmhurst were recent Chinese immigrants, the conflict has pitted immigrant families and the mostly black and Latino homeless families against one another. Earlier, in late June, The Times' article reported, a local civic group organized a series of demonstrations in which some of the protesters were reported to have chanted at the shelter residents "Get a job. The homeless families retorted that the protesters should "go back to China."


             How does one explain the current vitriol and the hysteria?  At least part of the explanation can be traced back to the political ideas upon which the "American experiment" was created and the culture of individualism that it apotheosized.


             Historically, the emergence of liberalism as a political theory during the Protestant Reformation engrafted onto this unfolding political paradigm a permanent sense of anxiety and apprehension. Luther's insistence that personal salvation could be gained by one's one receptivity to the Word alone released the self from the bonds of obedience to the universal church and its magisterium, but the penalties for personal emancipation have, to the present, continued to exact a severe psychological toll. As Hobbes observed, the severance of man from nature - the natural order, natural law - estranged man and left him alone and afraid. Fear and a sense of personal isolation, and therefore personal vulnerability, in turn, can lead to panic and hysteria.


             With the gradual demise of the Great Chain of Being came also the demise of the imperium  - the traditional authority of the magistrate to bind his subjects and his power to command. Even the ascension of the Protestant William of Orange to the throne of England in 1689 was effectuated, not by the right of succession, but by an invitation from the Parliament.


            Thereafter, the power to command would depend upon the need to receive formal, legislative consent. While a significant advance for democracy, this political change was not without its downside: since political institutions were, in the view of John Locke and other liberal thinkers, of dubious legitimacy and should be allowed to exercise only limited, arbitral, transitory authority, it instilled within the corpus of the liberal consensus a sense of the fragility of social and public institutions. This has been especially true in the U.S. where many of the thirteen colonies and later the republic itself were explicitly created by acts of covenanting - contracts.


             As one unforeseen and unintended consequence, a toxic brew of fear, anxiety, vulnerability, and concern about the fragility, and hence, stability, of political and social institutions has contributed to the periodic eruptions of extremely ugly incidents in American politics that Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America described as "irrational Lockianism." The Salem Witch trials and the frequent preemptive forays into Indian territories by colonial settlers who feared Indian insurrections (which, in turn, lead to the extermination of countless numbers of the aborigines) were precursors to the kind of hysteria that gripped the newly-independent United States after the French Revolution. The XYZ and Citizen Genet affairs were the precipitants for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the administration of John Adams.


             Later, recurrent fears of slave insurrections in the first half of the nineteenth century prompted the enactment of ever-more punitive laws in the slave-holding states to punish "run-aways," abolitionists, and anyone who tried to educate the slaves. In the 1840s, the Native American Party - the Know-Nothings - emerged in the Northeastern United States in response to a climate of intolerance and fear that had been preceded by the burning and sacking of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834, and by frequent attacks upon Irish and other Catholic immigrants.


             In the twentieth century, the imprisonment of war critics, such as the socialist Eugene Debbs during World War I, and the aggressive acts of Attorney General Palmer's "Red Raids" after the Bolshevik Revolution exemplified the kind of war frenzy and jingoism to which Americans have so often succumbed. Two decades later, after the isolationism espoused by Father Coughlin and the America First Committee proved to be delusional, the attack on Pearl Harbor made palatable the confinement of thousands of American citizens - citizens of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the United States were forced into internment camps, without trial or any evidence of personal guilt, for the duration of World War II.


             Justice Black's infamous decision in Korematsu v. United States, 321 U.S. 760 (1944), which excused this mass imprisonment, is stark evidence that has been confirmed on countless other occasions throughout American history of the refusal of the federal judiciary - as the designated arbiter of constitutional rights within this putatively liberal democracy - to defend the most basic civil liberties whenever the courage to decry public hysteria is required. Instead, the courts have, with few precious exceptions, routinely deferred to the executive branch's claims of a national emergency even after the evidence has shown that the alleged emergency - such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 - did not threaten or imperil the continued existence of the United States.


             In his extremely insightful book, Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm observed that "The individual became more alone, isolated, became an instrument in the hands of over-whelmingly strong forces outside of himself; he became an 'individual' but a bewildered and insecure individual..... Once the primary bonds which gave security to the individual are severed, once the individual faces the world outside of himself as a completely separate entity, two courses are open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable stage of powerlessness and aloneness. By one course he can progress to 'positive freedom;' he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work...he can thus become one again with man, nature and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. The other course is to fall back, to give up his freedom, to try to overcome his aloneness by trying to eliminate the gap which has arisen between his individual self and the world."


             In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith extolled the importance of what we  today call empathy: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.... As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation..."


            To experience empathy, as Smith would have it, one must put oneself in another's place. Where fear, insecurity and anger, however, are given free vent, however, empathy itself becomes a casualty.


             There is little doubt that millions of Americans, burdened by the failure of the market economy to improve their standards of living and befuddled by the unwillingness and the inability of this country's political institutions to address their most basic needs, feel extremely insecure and vulnerable. This sense of vulnerability and fear of imminent danger has been continually stoked by politicians since the beginning of the Cold War. Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and a cabal of professional fear-mongers and political opportunists successfully intensified the worries and concerns of ordinary citizens about the evils of foreign, left-leaning ideas and the purported infiltration of American institutions by individuals by assorted "pointy-headed" intellectuals, and "fellow-travelers" and naive "do-gooders" who relentlessly sought to undermine the "American way of life."


              After the attack the Twin Towers, this lamentable penchant to induce, and then to pander, to the basest fears and anxieties of ordinary Americans for purely partisan political purposes was honed and perfected by the administration of Bush-Cheney and by their Svengali, Karl Rove. Perhaps as appalling was the unsuccessful attempt by Rudolph Guliani to win the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination by running, as then-Delaware-Senator Joseph Biden sagely remarked, "on a noun, a verb, and 9/11."        


            The resulting hysteria - endorsed by a largely compliant elite and its political and media surrogates and at least tacitly supported by a totally clueless population - led directly to the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated $14 trillion dollars of that has been squandered to date on these two misbegotten wars. Had $8 trillion of those dollars been invested, instead, in infrastructure, jobs creation and other urgent needs, the money would have substantially addressed almost every pressing domestic need.


            If only a part of the remaining $4 trillion dollars had been invested in programs to aide our county's troubled neighbors to the south - that are suffering from many  problems that the U.S. has exacerbated  - i.e., the spill-over effects of our gun culture, our unquenchable appetite for drugs, and our continued support for repressive, self-serving elites, the spectacles  of thousands of waifs appearing at the Texas border would not by an almost daily phenomenon.


 It would also provide an opportunity for the Rick Perrys and Ted Cruzs of contemporary American politics not to embarrass themselves - and the rest of us - by their brazen displays of demagoguery and insensitivity.  Both Perry and Cruz claim to be God-fearing, Christian believers. What then do they make of the injunctions contained in the Gospel of Matthew, "But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven," Matthew 19:13, and "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," Matthew 5:7?  


And what are we to make of them and the rest of the naysayers among us who are habituated to criticism yet are unwilling to participate in the quest for solutions?

 

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The Federal Courts Pander to the 1%

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      Last week's 2-1 decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals in Halberg v. Burwell,, No. 14-501 followed closely on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U. S. ____ (2014). In that earlier case, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court held that a contraceptive mandate set forth in the federal regulations that implement the Affordable Care Act, when applied to the Christian owners of closely-held for-profit corporations who claim to have sincere beliefs that life begins at conception, violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993.

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            In the Halberg, two judges with long-standing, publicly-identified relationships with the Federalist  Society and other rightwing groups opined that one hard-scribble, putative appellant,  David Klemencic, had legal standing to challenge a provision  of the Affordable Health Care Act that proposed to penalize individuals who refused to purchase health insurance on West Virginia's federally-operated Health Insurance Exchange. Klemencic, who claimed to oppose the Affordable Health Care Act, made approximately $20,000 a year and would have been able to obtain health insurance, according to the Appeals Court, at a subsidized "cost of less than $21 per year or pay a somewhat greater tax penalty." Sadly but not surprisingly, Klemencic's appeal was bankrolled by a smörgåsbord of rightwing think-tanks and political action groups.  


             In their decision, the two errant judges of D.C. Court of Appeals held that the plain language of the Health Care Exchange provisions that proposed to impose tax penalties under the individual mandate requirement applied only to state-operated exchanges, of which there are only sixteen, and could not be imposed upon the residents of the other 34 states whose governors and legislators refused to establish their own state-run exchanges.


             The two judges sought to minimize the enormous harm and mischief that their decision would do with a sanctimonious rationalization, "Thus, although our decision has major consequences, our role is quite limited: deciding whether the IRS Rule is a permissible reading of the ACA. Having concluded that it is not, we reverse the district court and remand with instructions to grant summary judgment to appellants and vacant the IRS Rule."


             The dissenting judge, Harry Edwards, challenged his colleagues' modest characterization of their role: He noted that the effect of their decision, if upheld, would be to deny coverage to millions of American families who reside in the 34 states that do not have their own state-operated health insurance exchanges. "This case is about Appellants not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act."

             No one who has studied the history of federal jurisprudence should be surprised that a federal court once again refused to vindicate the concept of equal rights and access for all citizens, or that unelected federal judges, who are accountable to no one but themselves, would be unable to hold in abeyance their ideological proclivities, or refuse to grant any deference to the Executive and Congress as elected officials.


             Article III, § 1 of the U.S. Constitution establishes a Supreme Court and vests in the Congress the authority power to establish "such inferior Courts as Congress may from  time to time ordain and establish."  Since its creation, the Supreme Court and the subordinate courts of the federal judiciary, with the rare exceptions of the courts presided over by John Marshall and Earl Warren, have done little to promote fundamental fairness or justice. Instead, the federal judiciary, by and large, has served throughout its history as an instrument determined to uphold 18th and 19th century notions of individualism, to protect the status quo and to promote the interests and rights of property owners and businesses over those ordinary citizens. 


             For those reasons, it was not surprising that in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford , 60 U.S. 393(1856), Chief Justice Taney transformed the slave Dred Scott into a commodity - mere property - and repeated Thomas Jefferson's calumny that it was the British alone who were responsible for the introduction of slavery into the colonies and in  perpetuating that institution in this county.  


             Ironically, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court chose to grant the equal protection of the laws long before the same civil rights were accorded to black Americans in the Southern States. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 U.S. 394(1886), the court, in some inscrutable way, divined that corporations were persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Incredibly, that decision was introduced into the report of the decision by the case law reporter in the syllabus, and it appears nowhere in the text of the decision.) According to the observers, Justice Waite simply pronounced from the bench, sua sponte, before the beginning of argument that "This court does to wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does."


             That decision was especially perverse in that the Court was generally hostile to all claims for the enforcement of equal rights claims of the those recently freed slaves, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, and ten years later would decide the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Once again the protection of property rights was held to be more vital than the protection of living human beings.


             At the beginning of twentieth century, the United States Supreme Court enthusiastically adopted Herbert Spencer's unequivocal defense of the rights of free contract in the infamous case of Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). Writing for the majority, Justice Peckham struck down a New York statute which prohibited employers from requiring employees to work in excess of a sixty hour work week. Disingenuously, the Court found that, "The employee may desire to earn the extra money which would arise from his working more than the prescribed time, but this statute forbids the employer from permitting the employee to earn it. The statute necessarily interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employees concerning the number of hours in which the latter may labor in the bakery of the employer..." 


             Justice Holmes, in dissent, unsuccessfully sought to remind his colleagues that the law was supposed to be an even, impartial instrument, blind to prevailing ideology: "This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain....The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics."

 

            Later, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt found itself engaged in a tug-o-war with equally reactionary federal jurists. After three adverse decisions in Humphrey's Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, 295 U.S. 555 (1935), and  Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States,295 U.S. 495 (1935), in which the Supreme Court struck down New Deal legislation, Roosevelt filed legislation to increase the size of the court. In response to that threat, a majority of the jurists wisely chose to reverse course and opted not challenge subsequent legislation.  


              Since the 1970s especially, an increasingly reactionary federal judiciary has repeatedly announced its hostility toward government regulation, civil rights, and legislation in the public interest. The net effect of this jurisprudence has been to unravel the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society, to empower corporations and the disproportionately influential while ratifying the status quo.


             After having declared an almost theological commitment to the legal fiction of "original intent," a majority of the Supreme Court chose to breathe new life into the Tenth Amendment, the effect of which is to further drive American jurisprudence back into the early decades of the nineteenth century when even the idea of minimal government regulation, ostensibly in the public interest, was unimaginable. See, for example, Justice Rehnquist's decision in U. S. v. Lopez. 514 U.S. 549 (1995). In that decision, by a 5-4 struck vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a San Antonio gun conviction which occurred within a 100 yards of a school on the grounds that the interstate commerce clause did not apply. See also U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), a case in which Justice Thomas and his equally determined colleagues within a "whisker" of returning American constitutional jurisprudence to the Articles of Confederation.


             In addition, since the beginning of the 1970s, a bare majority of these Supreme Court judges have not hesitated to impose their personal political preferences for free-market, anti-regulation policies through the judicial feat of federal preemption of state laws and regulations to the contrary. Most of the laws and regulations preempted were designed by state legislatures to protect the rights of workers and consumers. In Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp.,439 U.S. 299 (1978), for example, the U.S. Supreme Court declared state usury laws to be unavailing against credit card companies engaged in interstate commerce. The effect of that decision, therefore, was to permit credit card companies to exact whatever interest rates they wanted, to the detriment of ordinary Americans.


             Equally unsettling, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S.1 (1976) severely undermined public confidence in the political system. In that decision, the court upheld some modest limits imposed by the U.S. Congress upon individual campaign contributions.  More importantly, however, the court held that campaign contributions by corporations and other large entities were protected by the U.S. Constitution. Congressional attempts to impose restrictions on the financial contributions by corporations and other organizations, because they conflicted with First Amendment guarantees of free speech, would, henceforth, invite strict scrutiny by the court and would require that a compelling state interest had to be shown to pass judicial muster.


             Thirty years after the Buckley decision, an even more reactionary court declared any restrictions upon campaign financing by corporations violate the free speech provision of the First Amendment. In  Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission,  558 U.S. 310 (2010),   Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, reversed two previous precedents which had upheld modest campaign finance regulations. Justice Kennedy opined that the Court had previously recognized that First Amendment protection extended to corporations and that "under the rationale of these precedents cited, political speech does not lose First Amendment protection 'simply because its source is a corporation;" further "corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the 'discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas' that the First Amendment seeks to foster."


             Students of the law understand that there has always existed a tension between fidelity to the letter of the law and the dictates of justice. The ancients reminds us that as human beings we are obliged to seek the summum bonum -i.e., the highest good, the ultimate end -  which is synonymous with justice.


             As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Thomas Aquinas remarks, quoting Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens."  Further, "A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."


             Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher who followed in the footsteps of St. Thomas, has emphasized that "the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."


             From the perspective of Maritain, Aquinas and the ancients, Judges Griffith and Randolph failed miserably in discharging their public responsibility as jurists in the D.C. Court of Appeals. By contrast, however, there remains a glimmer of hope that justice may yet triumph over ideology. A three judge panel sitting in the Fourth Circuit Court Appeals in Richmond, 109 miles away from Washington, D.C., saw the big picture - the reason why the Affordable Health Care Act was adopted in the first place. They got it exactly right three hours after the D.C. Court of Appeals released its decision on an identical set of claims.


             In denying the petitioners' claims in King v. Burwell, No. 14-1158 (7/22-2014), the three judges unanimously agreed that purpose of the act - to promote a common good - and Congress's intent must take precedence over pedantic, disingenuous arguments that rely upon linguistic and judicial feats of legerdemain. "The IRS Rule became all the more important a significant number of states indicated their intent to forego establishing Exchanges. With only sixteen state-run Exchanges currently in place, the economic framework supporting the Act would crumble if the credits were unavailable on federal Exchanges. Furthermore, without an exception to the individual mandate, millions more Americans unable to purchase insurance without the credits would be forced to pay a penalty that Congress never envisioned imposing upon them. The IRS Rule avoids both these unforeseen and undesirable consequences and thereby advances the true purpose and means of the Act."

 

The War-Mongers' Lament

      The growing turmoil in Iraq now provides the GOP with a marvelous opportunity to try to deflect the attention of a gullible American public from the war here at home that it is waging against ordinary Americans.   

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         Senator John McCain, who has never seen a war or a conflict that he does not think the United States should not fight, appeared on MSNC's "Morning Joe" today. Not surprisingly, he excoriated President Obama and called upon him to fire his entire national security team.


       McCain claimed that the U.S. had won the war in Iraq, but was now losing the very war that he claimed we had won because the U.S. refused to garrison a residual force in that country. McCain also warned that the scheduled U.S.withdrawal from Afghanistan would engender the same chaos there.


       Missing from McCain's incoherent narrative was any glint of recollection that it was he and the other hawks who endorsed Bush II's ill-fated invasion of that country or that it was Prime Minister Maliki - and not President Obama - who forced the precipitous withdrawal of all American troops because the Iraqi government refused to agree to a new status of forces agreement that would have protected American soldiers against prosecution under Iraqi laws. Apparently, the good senator believes that the U.S. should have refused to exit from that country, even if it meant that the U.S. became an occupying army.


       Not to be outdone, New York Times columnist David Brooks has now returned to his "neo-con" roots. Brooks, who was an original cheerleader for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, wrote in his Weekly Standard column on March 24, 2003 that "The president has remained resolute. Momentum to liberate Iraq continues to build. The situation has clarified, and history will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam and which were not."


      In an op ed column last week ("The Big Burn The Sunni-Shiite Conflict Explodes in Iraq") Brooks notes "When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government.  Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building." According to Brooks, by 2011 the Iraqi Army was performing better and "American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation."


        And precisely who was responsible for this country's present failure to restrain Maliki's sectarian impulses? The answer is obvious. Brooks opines that "We'll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence."


       In contrast to Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham, whom Brooks praises for their prescience, "President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world."


       McCain, Brooks and the gaggle of other discredited war-hawks who are now once again rearing their bellicose beaks inhabit a bizarre political world that can only be described as schizophrenic. As "conservatives" they fervently insist that the role of government in domestic affairs should be restrained. While advocating tax cuts and other welfare and incentives that solely benefit the 1%, they counsel against any policy initiatives that would address pressing domestic issues, such as growing economic inequality and joblessness, argue the virtues of limited government, and incessantly warn against the dangers of an "over-reaching" activist government.  

  

     By contrast, foreign policy seems to be an entirely different matter. McCain, Brooks and others of their persuasion seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to the myth of American omnipotence. In their view of the world beyond this country's borders, there are no limits to the projection of American military power, and if events turn out badly, it is solely because the occupant in the White House was incapable of controlling the outcome. 

 

     Absent from their analysis is any inkling that countries and civil societies evolve over time, that they are primarily responsible for own destinies, and that the process is often painful and messy. 


       Long become the U.S. became involved in a precipitous war in Iraq, the French and the British had already made a mess of that entire region. Thereafter, Bush I and Rumsfeld and Cheney stoked the fires of instability when they supported Saddam Hussein with billions of dollars in weapons and aide in his war against Iran in the 1980s.  And millennia before the U.S. became involved in Afghanistan, neither Alexander the Great nor later, all of Rome's legions could subdue the marauding tribes and fratricidal strife in that geographic region.


       Equally inexcusable, these armchair generals are utterly oblivious to the trillions of dollars of American treasure that was expended in this country's two ill-fated adventures, the military and civilian death toll,  and the enormous physical and psychological toll that the men and women who have served in this country's all volunteer military have had to bear. 


       Von Clausewitz observed that "war is the extension of politics by other means." Wars and military excursions should always be the option of last resort. American interests would be far better served through forging multinational efforts, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has recommended, with Iran and Turkey.


       Ill-considered U.S. policies have engendered enormous antipathy throughout the Middle East. For that reason, it would be wise to reduce our footprint there. A reckless, reflexive, "go-it- alone-cowboy policy" as urged by McCain, Brooks and the other foreign policy hawks will only serve to make matters worse. 


       Given their own abysmal track records, Senator McCain and David Brooks should at least have the common decency to shut-up.  

   

Can America's Downward Spiral Be Reversed?

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     A number of recent events have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of the political system of the United States. These events raise concerns as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.

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         The Center for American Progress has reported that the federal government has spent $136 billion total from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief. That amount is the equivalent of an average of nearly $400 per household per year paid for by tax-payers. Yet, at a time when  large parts of the country are increasingly devastated by incidents of severe weather, including torrential  downpours, floods, hail, wild fires, drought and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of severe climate.


       In response to mounting evidence of severe environmental damage caused fossil fuel emissions and human activity, almost all members of  GOP's Congressional Caucus and Democratic nay-sayers such as Senators Manchin and Mary Landrieu - who are  both wholly-owned captives of the coal and oil lobbies - have continued  to question the science behind climate change.


       Equally unsettling, within the past month, the country has witnessed horrific additional acts of gun violence acts. The other day, a fifteen year adolescent armed with an assault rifle entered an Oregon high school and opened fire in a gym locker room, fatally shooting a 14 year-old and wounding a teacher before he killed himself. This was the 74th shooting at an American school since the December 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School - and the 37th  this year - according to a statement issued by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The Violence Policy Center has reported that, as of 2010, more than one million Americans had died in firearms-related suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries since 1960.


       After the obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and moments of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of these preventable tragedies, an overwhelming majority of GOP legislators and sizeable minority of timid Democratic legislators will still not dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby - that there is something fundamentally deranged about a political system in which any virtually lunatic, white supremacist, convicted convict, or potential terrorist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows, over the internet, or in red states that have lax or virtually non-existent restrictions on the purchase of high-velocity assault weapons and armor-piercing ammunition.


       Sadly, this collective insanity has received by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some kind of constitutional right on the part of individuals - as opposed to the collective requirement of a "well-regulated militia (i.e. today's National Guard) - to bear arms and he piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."( As an aside, it should be noted that the Supreme Court would never allow guns to be carried into the court lest they imperil the safety of the nine judges). 


       A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in elections, by which SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. Their efforts have again been sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 310(2010), and now in McCutcheon, et al. v.  Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), these same five ideologues have held that corporations are people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment and public restrictions upon such expenditures violate the free speech provisions of that amendment.


       As a result of the increasing concentration of power in our wealthy elite, their SuperPACs and their lobbies, the United States Senate yesterday rejected a bill proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) by a 56-38 vote - which was l vote short of the 60 needed. Her bill was designed to allow Americans who are increasingly burdened by student debts to refinance their student loans at lower rates. The cost of the bill would have been easily paid for out of the so-called Buffett Rule, which would have set minimum tax rates for people making over $1 million whose income is primarily derived from passive investments rather than from wages earned from work.


       Current data shoes that student loan debt has now exceeds $1 trillion and has emerged as a major brake on economic growth and the ability middle-class families across the country to purchase homes and plan for their futures.


       "With this vote we show the American people who we work for in the United States Senate: billionaires or students," Warren stated. "A vote on this legislation is a vote to give millions of young people a fair shot at building their future." 


       By contrast, Republicans claimed the bill wouldn't have done anything to lower education costs or reduce borrowing, and they accused Democrats of playing politics by highlighting an issue that was bound to fail. "The Senate Democrats' bill isn't really about students at all. It's really all about Senate Democrats," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "They want an issue to campaign on to save their own hides this November."


       The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that "The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."


        Schlosser's concerns and those of Rawls have been repeatedly echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I -VT). In public comments in 2011, he ruefully observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to SuperPACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)" 


       Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.'"   


       This Fourth of July, as in so many years past, politicians, public figures, and the citizens at large will celebrate the independence of the United States from Great Britain, invoke the inspirational words of the Declaration of Independence, and laud the American experiment as the noblest yet conceived of by man. Yet underneath the platitudes, there is a growing sense of unease. Shrill partisanship and institutional gridlock, as well as intractable economic and social problems, suggest that the 18th century governmental machinery that has guided this country since the ratification of the constitution in 1787 is becoming increasingly sclerotic and unresponsive.


       We now exist in a twenty-first century world, but we are collectively boxed within an unresponsive eighteenth century construct from which there is virtually no escape, given the nearly insuperable obstacles that the Founders imposed in order to amend this no longer viable instrument.


       The Founders of the American Republic, inspired as they were by the politics of John Locke, shared his fear of concentrated power. Hence, they devised a constitutional system for the United States in which political power was distributed between the federal government and the individual states. The object, as James Madison commented, was to disperse political power: "The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures."


       Divided government, with its diffusion of power vertically and horizontally, has contributed to an appalling lack of transparency and accountability that enable the office-holders in each of the fifty states and in the three branches of the federal government to point accusing fingers at one another while refusing to accept responsibility for their own decision-making.


       The diffusion and distribution of political power within the political system of the United States has today resulted in something profoundly different than what they anticipated: The liberal consensus that gave birth to the American republic, emerged historically in England as a democratic force to challenge to feudal privilege and the tyranny of kings.


       But in the United States, where all who have been born are held to be equal before the law and where the Constitution expressly prohibits the granting of any titles of nobility, John Locke's politics has created its own antithesis: rule by oligarchs and corporate plutocrats in which the rights of the wealthy individuals and their corporations are accorded greater protections than the rights of ordinary individuals.


        Other vibrant democracies in the Western World have revisited and updated their constitutional schemes of government when the evidence showed that the governmental machinery no longer served the public interest. Why should we be any different?         


       The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."


       History reminds us that social justice can never be realized in a political system that permits a culture of indifference and injustice to fester and metastasize. History also reveals, however, that, when the suffering of too many citizens remains pervasive and ignored, the bonds of civility begin to unravel, ineluctably, over time. At the precise moment when the body politic finally shreds, even those who are most privileged will be unable to find shelter from the resulting chaos.  

 

Memorial Day, 2014

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   Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the lost lives, destroyed hopes and dreams, and the enormous social and economic burdens that wars have inflicted upon this country and its citizens.
   

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    Since the founding of this Republic, more than 1,300,000 military have perished in all of the wars, here and abroad, in which the country has been involved. In addition, the lives of the loved ones and those who have been left behind were forever profoundly diminished and saddened.

    According to a recent report prepared by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation,  the United States today spends more on defense than the next 8 countries combined. "Defense spending accounts for about 20 percent of all federal spending -- nearly as much as Social Security, or the combined spending for Medicare and Medicaid. The sheer size of the defense budget suggests that it should be part of any serious effort to address America's long-term fiscal challenges." The report quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, the past Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:: "The single greatest threat to our national security is our debt."

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     As of August 2013, despite the end of involvement in Iraq and the winding down of the of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan , there were approximately 1.43 million active-duty military personnel in the  armed forces of the U.S. States and more than 850,000 in the active duty reserves of all branches.

     For the fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense and military-related budget is $756.4 billion. This sum includes $495.6 billion for the base budget of the Department of Defense ; $85.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Funds for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan;  $175.4 billion for defense-related agencies and functions; $65.3 for the Veterans Administration ; $42.6 billion for the State Department; 38.2 billion for  Homeland Security; $17.6 billion for FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice ; and $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy .

     Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that "the Department's physical assets consist of As one of the Federal government's larger holders of real estate, the DOD manages a global real property portfolio hat consists of more than 557,000facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), located on over 5,000 sites worldwide and covering over 27.7 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, sixty-nine years after the end of World War II and sixty-one years after an armistice was declared in Korea.

     More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

     In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from their daily experiences.

    The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

     After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight, out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality.

     Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money and have refused to vote extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

    Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

     The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing needs here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

     War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and to support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's children.
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The GOP's Assault upon Reason

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          On Sunday, May 11, 2014, Senator Mark Rubio told ABC News, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." Senator Rubio also denied the efficacy of concerted action to confront the growing danger of climate change. He opined that "I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy."

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             Rubio claimed that scientists exaggerated the danger with a dismissive statement that "our climate is always changing," and that "I don't know of any era in world history where the climate has been stable."  Rubio's remarks were made a few days after he told CNN that President Obama wasn't really qualified to speak on climate change since he was "not a meteorologist."


             Rubio's skepticism about whether climate change is occurring and whether human activity is an agent of climate change is widely shared among GOP legislators, party members and right-wing institutions across the United States. The mere fact that the population of the earth has increased from an estimated 620 million humans in 1700 A.D. to the current estimate of 7.2 billion plus today is, from their perspective, utterly irrelevant as is the evidence presented by NOAA and the overwhelming majority of scientists who have seriously studied the issue of climate change. 

  

             The refusal to acknowledge the existence of climate change is rooted in the shared worldview of so many GOP adherents who are unable able to grasp the conceptual distinctions  between a scientific theory and an economic or a political theory and who consistently conflate  personal opinions and beliefs with facts and data.

 

             Simple ignorance by hard scrabble,low-information citizens is only part of the explanation. Paranoia also plays a part. Religious lunatics and fundamentalists, increasingly fearful of creeping secularization and the ascendancy of science as a challenge to many of their cherished myths and fables, have also joined the ranks of the deniers and have now become the functional equivalent of a Christian Taliban.


             This point was recently highlighted in a recent New York Times' article by Alan Blinder ("Bryan College Is Torn: Can Darwin and Eden Coexist?", May 20, 2014). The small, self-described  "Christian liberal arts college" that was named after William Jennings Bryan has, since its founding in 1930, insisted that faculty sign a statement of belief as a part of their employment contracts. The statement of belief expresses the institution's beliefs about creation and evolution, and includes an assertion that: "The origin of man was by fiat of God."  In February of this year, however, college officials decided that faculty members also had to agree to an additional statement that declared that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms."


             The president of Bryan College, Dr. Livesay, was quoted as having said, "We want to remain faithful to the historical charter of the school and what we have always practiced through the years. There has never been a need, up until today, to truly clarify and make explicit what has been part of the school for 84 years. We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don't view our faith through the eyes of culture. I don't think you have to believe the Bryan way in order to be a strong evangelical. But this is Bryan College, and this is something that's important to us. It's in our DNA. It's who we are."


             This reaction against modernity has increasingly become the right-wing's narrative. Aside from the true believers, the movement has been funded by corporate interests and an array of privately-funded "think-tanks" that have commercial stakes in the current debates about public policy, education, and the role that evidence-based research should play in the formulation of environmental and economic regulations. Another New York Times by Motoko Richmay ("Science Standards Divide a State Built on Coal and Oil," May 18, 3104) explains why the even the Common Core Standards have now become the subject of increasing attacks on the right.


             Richmay quotes  Susan Gore, the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, to the effect that the new national science standards for schools were a form of "coercion," and "I don't think government should have anything to do with education."  Ms. Gore, who is the daughter of the founder of the company that makes Gore-Tex waterproof fabric, expressed her convictions a few weeks after the Republican-controlled legislature in Wyoming, where coal and oil interests are the paramount players in the state's economy, became the first state to reject the standards, which include lessons about the human impact on global warming.


             Matt Teeters, a GOP State Representative from Lingle, was also reported in the article to have complained to The Casper Star-Tribune that the standards "handle global warming as settled science" and that "There's all kind of social implications involved in that, that I don't think would be good for Wyoming." Teeters argued that such teaching could wreck the economy of Wyoming, which is the country's largest energy exporter. His objections to the new science standards were seconded by Ron Micheli, chairman of the State Board of Education, who claimed that the standard was "very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development."


             The existence of this unholy alliance among GOP legislators, science deniers, religious zealots, and a number of well-documented corporate interests should be a source of concern to every sentient citizen. When facts no longer matter, and anyone's delusions and fantasies are treated as the equivalent of facts, citizens and their elected officials become unable to make the kind of critical, nuanced and insightful distinctions that are essential predicates for informed decision-making. 


             Public policies that are based upon careful research and evidence-based facts are increasingly threatened with inundation by the sea of propaganda that the deniers of reason and their corporate sponsors are able to undam. If not resisted vigorously now, one may discover that, over time, the very idea of democracy has become submerged along with our physical environment.

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Should Private Interests Trump the Public Interest?

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The debate between public and private interests has long been a part of the discourse in American politics. The contretemps over Cliven Bundy in Nevada illustrates how profoundly this discussion has become debased by the purveyors of privacy whose agenda is now being mindlessly propagated by the rightwing noise machine and the lunatic fringe.

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    Chris Swangsgard observes in an op ed column in the Salt Lake Tribune ("Cliven Bundy is a food-stamp cowboy," April 25 2014), that the controversy stems from Bundy's refusal to pay the Federal Bureau of Land Management the $1.35 per month per cow fee that the Bureau  assesses for grazing rights on public land administered by it on behalf of the citizens of the United States. The Bureau has issued some 18,000 permits at this fee which almost all ranchers pay.

    The Government Accountability Office reports that in a typical year, ranchers paid $21 million for grazing permits on the public lands it administers. By contrast, the average grazing fee on private land in the West is $16.80 per month according to the Congressional Research Service and the fees range between $2.28 and $150 on state lands in the region.  

          Bundy, who now owes the U.S. taxpayers a sum in excess of $1,000,000 for refusing to pay for permits and for illegally grazing his cattle on public lands, defended his behavior by insisting that he does not recognize the sovereignty of the United States government. In November 1998, Bundy made the same nutty argument in the U.S. District Court for Nevada.

    The court decisively rejected that argument and held "...the public lands in Nevada are the property of the United States because the United States has held title to those public lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States" under Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War which was 16 years before the State of Nevada even existed. In the light of the Union's victory over the advocates of state sovereignty in the Civil War and the unambiguous text of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, only the historically illiterate would be surprised that the court also rejected Bundy's claim that Nevada law in some mysterious way should trump federal law.

      As a result of that litigation, the court ordered Bundy to remove any non-permitted cattle from BLM land by the end of November 1989 and the presiding judge issued a judgment that provided that, in the event of any future violations of the court's orders, Bundy would be fined $200 per day for each cow without a permit that he refused to remove from federal public lands.

    Since 1998, Bundy has willfully violated the court's orders and he expanded his illegal grazing onto additional acreage of BLM land. In 2013, the court gave Bundy 45 days to remove his cattle and authorized the Bureau of Land Management to impound any cattle Bundy failed to remove. The confrontation reached a crescendo when armed "militia" gathered on Bundy's ranch and aimed semi-automatic weapons at Bureau of Land management agents from a bridge overpass.

    Until Bundy's overtly racist remarks became an additional source of controversy, his expansive perception of his private rights - as opposed to his duties as a citizen - were enthusiastically endorsed by the Neanderthal caucus of the GOP.

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul excused Bundy's theft of public property and, in a brazen act of demagoguery, accused the federal government of heavy-handedness and proclaimed that the "federal government shouldn't violate the law." Previously, in a 2002 letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul had made a similar ludicrous argument about the U.S. Fair Housing Act when he insisted that it "ignores the distinction between private and public property," and that "Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate."

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared on "CBS This Morning," and when asked about Bundy's comments, replied. "I don't know what he said but the fact is Cliven Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we're looking at in the state of Texas. He is an individual - deal with his issues as you may. What we have in the state of Texas, I don't get distracted about, is the federal government is coming in and attempting, from our perspective, to take over private property. And you must -- if this country's to stay the land of freedom and liberty, private property rights must be respected."

    Not to be outdone, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated that the ongoing standoff between Bundy and the executive and judicial branches of federal government exemplified the Obama Administration's "jackboot of authoritarianism." In a separate interview on Texas radio, Cruz expressed uncritical support for the heavily-armed thugs who had threatened federal agents and whom Nevada Senator Harry Reid had correctly denounced as domestic terrorists.

     The alleged grievances that stoke the ire of Cliven Bundy and the GOP's rightwing stem from a shared mythology that views society as merely an aggregation of private interests that are relentlessly and enthusiastically competing against one another in a glorious quest to acquire ever more private property  - or stuff in the immortal words of George Carlin. Government - to the extent to which  it seeks to curb the excesses caused by that mindset and impose restraints - thus becomes the enemy. 

    This worldview draws its values from a narrow and uniquely American understanding of the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation. That tradition was inspired by the writings Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. 

     Locke's politics then became the template upon which the Founding Fathers encoded the constitutional machinery of the United States. Because it became embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience long before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted by libertarians such as Congressmen Paul Ryan and Senator Paul as something new and profound.
 
    Locke argued - as almost all GOP leaders today would agree - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that "government is an artificial construct created solely by contract."  Locke thus sought to asserted that the role of government to that of a passive arbiter - an umpire - and claimed that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."

    Locke's labor theory of value, based upon an absurd and intellectually indefensible historic fiction, has nonetheless become the conventional justification for private ownership of property in Anglo-American common law: "The 'labour' of his body and the 'work' of his hands, we may say, are his property. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joining to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property."

    Of course, the current defenders of unlimited private property rights fail to remember that here in the U.S. the land was already occupied by an indigenous people  - the  Indians - who harbored a quaint belief that the Great Spirit had given the land to everyone in common. What distinguished their concept of ownership from the European settlers wasn't Locke's theory of private property but, rather, the latter's literacy skills.

    Upon their arrival in colonies, the Europeans immediately devised written titles to the land they occupied and early on created Registries of Deeds to document and protect their ownership interests. The land grab was completed with the American Revolution, after which the last vestiges of the crown' titles and the properties of the vanquished Loyalists were expropriated by the victorious Patriots.  

     Proudhon and Marx were not the first to question whether property was a social or a private right. Centuries before Locke, Thomas Aquinas taught that, since God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man had become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. As Aquinas observed, "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..."

     For that reason Catholic social philosophy to the present - epitomized by Pope Francis' recent apostolic  exhortation  Joy of the Gospel -  remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth.

    In contrast to the ideology of radical ant-social individualism espoused by Cliven Bundy and so many others on the American right, Aquinas also taught that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum  - the highest good - which is synonymous with  justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Aquinas quoted Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."  

    In addition, Aquinas insisted that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality: "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor,...so is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "...'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies a relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

    Catholic social thought to the present emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as classical liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations.

     Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain reminds us that "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

    In his insightful book What Money Can't Buy, Harvard Government Professor Michael Sandel warns that market values have begun to displace all other values in civil society. As the power of the market economy and its arbiters, through their ability to influence discourse in the public square, increasingly call the tunes to which our political leaders feel obliged to dance, human relationships, the legal system, science, and even knowledge itself have become subordinate to short-term economic concerns and pre-occupations. It is only in the context of such a twisted and deformed culture that a Cliven Bundy could emerge as the avatar of a victimized American.  
    
    As an early observer of the newly-created republic, Alexis deToucqueville was prescient about the deleterious effects that an individualism run amok could have upon the American project. As he noted, "Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition."
 
    Cliven Bundy and his militia of armed, maniacal supporters are low-information, internet-driven anarchists who are unable to grasp the implications of  their profoundly anti-social and illegal behavior. Can the same be said for those self-appointed spokesmen for the GOP who should know better?   

     Let's all hope it's not too late for sanity to prevail.

    

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The Irrational Politics of Senators Cruz and Paul

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  Nothing illustrates the impoverishment of political discourse in the United States today than the emergence of U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as potential GOP presidential candidates, both of whom have expressed support for libertarian political ideas.
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    As a political movement, libertarianism in the United States traces its ancestry to  the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman who urged a return to the ideas of classical liberalism with its emphasis upon extreme anti-social individualism, negative freedom, individual  rights,  protection of private property, the inviolability of contacts, minimal  government and laissez-faire economics.  In its American expression, classical liberalism owes its inspiration to an extremely selective emphasis upon a number of ideas expressed in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and David Ricardo, as their ideas were extrapolated and applied to the American  political experience by Jefferson, Madsion, Adams and others.

    When Ted Cruz first ran for the United States Senate, he professed to be an advocate of limited government, states' rights, an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, and hostility to government regulation of the economy. Cruz's support for libertarian ideas and his antipathy to government regulation of the economy date back to his early adolescence when, reportedly at the age of thirteen, his father enrolled him in an entity called "the Free Market Education Foundation." In that study group, which apparently was organized in manner somewhat similar to early twentieth century Marxist indoctrination groups, Cruz was schooled in the  "free-market" ideologies  of economic philosophers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.

    In a similar vein, Rand Paul, son of the former Republican Congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul describes himself as a libertarian. As a U.S. Senator, he has expressed support for term limits for Congress, a balanced budget amendment, and extensive reductions in federal taxation, and spending, especially as the latter relates to helping the poorest among us.  

    As one example, in 2012, Senator Paul advocated substantially reducing the food stamp program because of the various wastes and fraudulent activities that have been perpetrated by some of its users. "We do not have an endless supply of money. I think that Americans would be just flabbergasted at the amount of money and some of these programs are duplicative so people getting food stamps for a meal are also getting a free lunch at school. Some of these programs were actually advertising for applicants," he said. "In my hometown they advertised to try to promote to get people to come in and eat the free lunch during the summer time.  It's not that we won't help people, we just need to be conscious of how much money we have and can we help only those who cannot help themselves?"

    There are important questions that need to be asked of both of these Senators and of libertarians in general, but that are rarely, if ever, raised in the mainstream media. Are their ideas   desirable or workable? Would families in the United States be better or worse off  government regulation, including environmental and safety laws, food and drug laws, anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws, and labor laws, all already weak by European standards, were  further relaxed and government taxation and regulation of businesses and corporations was substantially  curtailed?

    The evidence of the last forty plus years in which government regulation of the economy has been rolled back, while the wages of employees have continued to decline and as the U.S.  became a net debtor, service economy in which corporations, in the name of freed trade, outsourced almost all of this country's manufacturing capacity, suggests otherwise.  

    All of the grim economic news that continues to hobble the U.S. economy confirms one of the central paradoxes of libertarian political philosophy as it plays out in the liberal democracy of the United States: the inability of that ideology to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of self-interest and equality. If self-interest, as expressed in the pursuit and acquisition of property, is a natural right since, as Locke put it, "God gave it to the use of the industrious and the rational (and labour was to be his title to it)" and the primary role of government is the protection of that property, isn't it inevitable that, over the span of generations, because of the complicity in not protecting such inheritances, and because of social and genetic distinctions among "the industrious and the rational" and those who are not, inequality will increase?

    The magnitude and the duration of the existing economic crisis raises other questions that libertarians and classical liberal ideology --and the latter's economic expression, market capitalism--cannot answer. Of what value is the meaning of individualism to most individuals if, in the competitive roulette of "survival of the fittest," the fit and the victors increasingly number only a few, while a significant number of the population are vanquished or declared to be unfit? 

    Isn't the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, each of whom is in competition with all others, self-defeating? Doesn't unfettered competition often have deleterious effects upon the public interest? Isn't it an economic fact of life that, in a market economy, individual actors--whether human beings, corporations or governmental units--seek to maximize their advantages and to minimize their risks in a capitalist economy?     Isn't it also true that, when each actor "hunkers down" during an economic crisis, the self-replicating behavior--as reflected in job losses, withdrawal of investment and the collapse of consumer demand--ripples through the economy to the detriment of all but the few, most fortunate? Doesn't that behavior then exacerbate the very problems that individual actors seek to inoculate themselves against, the public consequences of their behavior be damned? At that point, doesn't Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons become rather than a parable, an empirical reality?

    Doesn't even Locke's concept of negative freedom--because it does not provide for an economic underpinning--become, especially in times of economic misery, a platitude or a meaningless abstraction?

    The historian Thomas Franks has expressed his suspicions about the reasons why  libertarian ideas have been able to insinuate themselves so prominently into the public square, "Libertarianism," he argues, "helps  conservatives pass off a patently probusiness political agenda as a noble bid for human freedom. Whatever we may think of libertarianism as a set of ideas, practically speaking, it is a doctrine that owes its visibility to the obvious charms it holds for the wealthy and the powerful. The reason we have so many well-funded libertarians in American these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grassroots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. Like social Darwinism and Christian Science before it, libertarianism flatters the successful and rationalizes their core beliefs about the world. They warm to the libertarian idea that taxation is theft because they themselves don't like to pay taxes. They fancy the libertarian notion that regulation is communist because they themselves find regulation intrusive and annoying."

    Franks' suspicion that, aside from protecting and promoting economic self-interests, libertarians are not really concerned about freedom for ordinary people is exemplified by Rand Paul's unqualified endorsement of government intrusion into the bedrooms of Americans and his support for the micro-regulation of every woman's uterus.  His website proudly proclaims, "I am 100% pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013. This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception."   

    Ted Cruz insists that he, too, is "pro-life," and that the only exception to abortion that he would allow is when a pregnancy endangers the mother's life; and he opposes same-sex marriage, professing his belief that marriage is "between one man and one woman."

    The late Christopher Hitchens once observed, "I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough."

    The irony is that self-proclaimed libertarians such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have entered into Faustian bargains with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which they have agreed to support the most selfish agendas of the economic elite, no matter how short-sighted, destructive or harmful such policies may be to the immediate and long-term best interests of the constituents they claim to actually represent or to the public interest. Their hypocrisy and illogic speak volumes about their qualifications for public office and are a sad commentary on the intelligence of the voters of Kentucky and Texas to whom they pandered so successfully.  
 

 

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