Chapter 36: 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.

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 billion 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. 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 the 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 University'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.  

  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.

         The contrast between "private affluence" and "pubic squalor" in America has only grown worse in the subsequent decades since Galbraith first used those terms to describe what he foresaw as evolution of inequality in the U.S. economy. 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." 

           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 the vast majority of Americans, nor has it maximized business opportunities. 

         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, as Hyman Minsky has argued, the buyers and sellers of goods and services become locked in mutually destructive death throes.

In addition, given a shared mind-set that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, the defenders of the economic status-quo remain oblivious to the adverse effects of poverty, the lack of health care, pollution, climate change and to basic principles of social justice.  Further,  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.

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 Triumph Of Fantasy In American Politics

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76x64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cognitive dissonance seems to increasingly define American politics. Jennifer Stefano's op ed column in  The New York Times ["This Isn't What the Tea Party Fought For," February 18, 2018] is a perfect illustration of the disconnect between the aspirational worldview of millions of Americans and the reality of the U.S. political and economic system as it actually exists today.   

  Stefano describes herself as someone who "... like millions of others, was becoming the new American radical, defined by my belief in a limited government that allows people, not bureaucracy, to flourish." Before she became a self-proclaimed Tea-Party enthusiast, she stated that "my main contributions to American politics were voting, voraciously reading American history and Austrian economic theory and irritating liberals at dinner parties."She further proclaims that her commitment to the Tea Party stems from her long-held belief "in an America with opportunity for all and favoritism for none.

The gravamen of Ms. Stefano's lament is that, because of government overreach "Americans are being robbed of the chance to pass on a more prosperous country than we were given. Median household income peaked in 1999 and didn't recover until 2016. That's a generation of workers who are worse off than their parents, thanks, in part, to out-of-control government spending."

Ms. Stefano is so misinformed, on so many counts, that it is hard to know precisely where to begin. For starters, Ms. Stefano's belief in limited government is hardly radical. In fact, it is profoundly reactionary since the origin of that idea stems from the late 16th century olitical philosophy of John Locke. Locke advanced a theory of limited government that was designed to protect the rights of individuals. 

A century later, Jefferson and Madison, among  others, were so enamored of Locke's politics that they incorporated his political convictions into the constitutional framework of the United States government. Locke's ideas were thus were inextricably woven into this country's political institutions. The institutionalization of that framework and the internalized worldview created by Locke'spolitics continue to shape and to inform American political discourse to the present.

Secondly, Ms. Stefano's professed commitment to "Austrian economic theory and irritating liberals at dinner parties" reveals her  ignorance of Western political theory. Within the tradition of political theory, Locke's political philosophy is properly called liberalism. It asserts that human beings are by nature solitary, aggrandizing individuals and that, consequently, the preferred form of social and political relationships with others, including the state as the organized expression of political society, is solely contractual. 

Locke's ideology, because it apotheosizes the individual, asserts that the self alone is the irreducible unit and concrete reality upon which all political societies and their governments are organized; and that the promotion and protection of the individual and his interests, particularly s they relate to property, are the primary objects of all public policy. Thus, Stefano is herself a liberal, not a radical or a conservative, and the Austrian economic theory she embraces is a 
lineal descendent of the commitment to unbridled competition and acquisition propounded by Locke, and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. 

Ms. Stefano is unaware of the intellectual roots of the kind of politics that she espouses.  Further, because her ideological commitment to these antiquated ideas is so intense, she is blind to the fact that, while political ideas are neither true nor false per se, it is possible to track and to evaluate the consequences of the policy decisions that are based upon those ideas.  

  For those with eyes who wish to see, the country in which we live is no longer, if it ever was, a society of individuals equally competing with one another for shared political and economic power, nor  do they compete on an equal footing in John Stuart Mills' fabled marketplace of ideas. Yes, it is true that "Americans are being robbed of the chance to pass on a more prosperous country than we were given" and that "Median household income peaked in 1999 and didn't recover until 2016 " and "That's a generation of workers who are worse off than their parents." But Ms. Stefano mistakenly attributes the causes to a bloated, out-control government.

While it is true that overall government spending needs to be reigned in (Isn't the military budget an excellent place to start?), wage stagnation and inequality of opportunity have primarily been caused by a lack a lack of government regulation, government acquiescence to, and domination by, corporate interests, and the movement towards monopoly capitalism.
 In sark contrast to Western European democracies, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, an ever-increasing number of states in the union have enacted laws that make it virtually impossible for employees to unionize and to bargain collectively for increased wages and better working conditions. The dramatic decline in union participation and membership since the 1950s is the largest single factor in explaining wage stagnation.

Second, the courts in every state in the union, with the exception of Montana, have adopted the concept of "at-will" employment. That judicially-created fiction arose after the Civil War and endorsed Herbert Spencer's Social  Darwinism in which the "weakest" among us have been left without any legal recourse.   

Third, unfair trade laws, out-sourcing, and automation have reduced the number and kinds of jobs available and the wages that they pay. The economic harm caused by the three trends has been exacerbated by a lack of government financial assistance and job-retraining for those workers who have been displaced. 

Fourth, the refusal to impose reasonable limits upon inherited wealth has created a society that has become increasingly unequal and gives the lie to the myth of equality of opportunity. With each generation, the descendants of the wealthy, solely by the good fortune of their births, become ever wealthier while everyone else is left to forage on his own. 

       Fifth, the decline in anti-trust enforcement has permitted ever bigger entities to monopolize the marketplace and to exact rents to the detriment of small businesses and consumers.

Lastly, the adoption of a myriad of policies advocated by the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Congress will further gut the already meager safety net. Those policies include drastic budget cuts in foods assistance (SNAP), job training, Medicare, Medicaid, private school savings accounts and the privatization of many other public goods that will condemn millions of Americans to a life-time of poverty.

Contrary to Ms. Stefano's convictions, enlightened government policies, enacted to promote the public's well-being, can and have made a substantial difference for the better in the lives of ordinary Americans. Government in a democracy should never be viewed as our enemy but as our servant - as one that should be used as a positive instrument for the public good and, in the words of A.D. Lindsay, to "hinder the hindrances" that stand in the way of every citizen's self-advancement. 

By contrast, corporations will never invest in public goods or in the well-being of our country's citizens unless they can be guaranteed a profit. Doesn't that economic reality run counter to the kind of an economy based upon unfettered competition and government minimalism that Ms. Stefano's advocates? 

Prayers Will Never Be The Answer

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photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Lott's self-serving critique of gun registration laws in Tuesday's New York Times [ "Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence"] needs to be juxtaposed to yesterday's episode of gun violence in the Parkland, Florida high school. Why should it matter if a few people are inconvenienced by gun registration laws or if their identities are confused with others when balanced against the human toll caused by gun violence? Why should mentally-challenged, violence prone or ill-equipped persons, who are neither part of the military or the police, be given an unfettered right to own and carry guns of every conceivable type and caliber? Isn't the first duty of the government to ensure the safety and protection of its citizens? Why should the possession of these instruments of destruction be elevated to an alleged constitutional right?

Every other Western democracy that has confronted these very questions have arrived at better, safer answers: Restrict guns, require registration, comprehensive background checks, continuing education, and require that all licensed weapons be securely locked in sealed containers.

Professional police forces were created in this country because citizens correctly concluded that they did not want to b e subject to subject to vigilante violence. Given that history, why are the police associations and chiefs of police reluctant to take on the gun lobby even through they, too, are often the victims of gun violence?

Prayers are not the answer to gun violence; legislation is. It is time for every American concerned about this country's endless orgy of gun violence to demand action and to punish every legislator who panders to the NRA. A country that embraces a culture of gun ownership, given the attendant violence it spawns, and elevates it to a constitutional principle is one that is on the verge of implosion. Requiscat in pace, Antonin Scalia.

Memorial Day, 2017

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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 terrible toll that war has inflicted upon this country and its citizens.     

     Image result for washington rules bacevich         

    Today, the United States spends more on defense than any other country, U.S. military spending is larger than the next nine countries combined, and about five times more than China, which ranks second on the list of major defense spenders. According to independent budget  analyst, Kimberly Amadeo, the present U.S. military budget is $824.7 billion. That amount includes a $574.5 billion base budget for the Department of Defense; $64.6 billion for  Overseas Contingency Operations for DoD to fight ISIS; and a third component, that totals  $173.6 billion of which the Department of Veterans Affairs receives $78.8 billion,  the State Department, $28.2 billion; Homeland Security, $44.1 billion; the FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice, $8.6 billion; and the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy, $13.9 billion.

     Currently, defense spending accounts for about 20% of the entire federal budget and it consumes up to 50% of the so-called discretionary budget, which pays for everything but entitlement programs and interest on the debt. In other words, all federal funding for education, infrastructure, transportation, the arts, and scientific research, to name a few.
     As of this date, there are approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. There are an additional 1.5 million members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard, hundreds of thousands of whom have been regularly deployed overseas since 9/11. Further, the 2014 "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that the "Department's occupies a  reported 276,770 buildings throughout the world, valued at over $585 billion and comprising over 2.2 billion square feet.  In addition, Department of Defense "uses over  178,000 structures throughout the world, valued at over $131 billion and the DOD  DOD manages over 24.9 million acres of land worldwide.  More than 97% of that land is located in the United States or in U.S. Territories."

     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, seventy-one years after the end of World War II and sixty-three years after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three theaters, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three theaters 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 the 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. Their cravenness is enthusiastically endorsed by an uncurious and profoundly uninformed president who evaded military service during  the Vietnam War and who embraces autocrats around  the world threatens to destabilize Europe and the Middle East. President Trump and many of the same Congressmen who  decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money are now determined to deny health care to 23 million Americans who have received it under the Affordable Health Care Act.

     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 $6 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated. That amount of money would be sufficient to guarantee health care to every American and to rebuild this country's decaying infrastructure.

     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 domestic problems 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 support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.

Spec. 4  Paul Nevins
U.S. Army, 1968-1970   


What St. Patrick's Day should really mean

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     Today is a day when Capital Hill offices empty out early  as federal employees trek to familiar  pubs, the Chicago River runs  green, and the thousands of Long Island fire fighters and school children descend upon Manhattan to celebrate St. Patrick' Day.

      Yesterday, members  of Trump's inner circle, including V.P. Pence, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, joined House Speaker Paul Ryan and others who  claim Irish heritage to welcome Enda Kenny, the Irish taoiseach (prime minster) to the White House.

    Their presence in the Trump administration and in the GOP causes one to wonder what these descendants of  Éirinn have in common with their  ancestors?

    I grew up in an Irish Catholic household in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston with four sisters and a brother. I was the first in my family privileged to attend a university.

     My mother was a home- maker with a grammar school education. My father also had only a grammar school education. Both sets of their parents had emigrated from Galway, Cork, and Roscommon.  For decades my father patrolled the streets of South Boston as a beat cop. He was always thankful to have a modest-paying job as a pubic servant because of his experiences and those of his family during the Great Depression.

    My father also always remembered what it was like in the early 1920s when, as a worker in  non-union factory, his boss ordered him and other Irish-American employees to participate in a torch-light parade for Warren Harding. He also remembered the indignities that his parents and friends had suffered as Irish immigrants.

         I never heard my mother or father utter a bad word about any immigrants from any other country. In addition, because they remembered their roots and from wence they came,  they did  not look down upon the poor  or other minorities or ascribe their misfortune to personal failings. They remembered the entreaty of the gospel according to  Luke, "To whom much is given, much is expected in return."

    After his brother  and a sister died prematurely, my father purchased a separate house on Rexford Avenue in Mattapan and placed his two nieces and a nephew along with his parents in that house. He supported his second family by working extra details as a policeman  for over two decades.

    My mother was one of eleven children. One of her sisters, Helen McNiff, was a seminal influence in my life. Aunt Nellie had suffered enormous adversity in her life but somehow she always remained an optimist. Her favorite comment was, "Sit down and have a cup of tea and everything will feel better." Nellie suffered privation but, because of the New Deal was able to eke out an existence on Social Security widow's payments and through public employment as a cleaning  women in the court houses of Suffolk county. Nellie was the one who constantly reminded me that  all true sons and daughters of Ireland could only be true to their heritage by their  shared commitment to social justice.

        My father and mother and Aunt Nellie were lifelong Democrats and Catholics.  They revered Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Pope John XIII. The message of inclusion and optimism that each of these three leaders exuded persuaded them that their children's futures would be  brighter and better than the lives they enjoyed. In their own, unschooled ways, my parents and my aunt understood that there was something profoundly wrong about greed and the needless accumulation of ever more possessions. They were also skeptical of all of those politicians, including  Ronald Reagan, who suggested that government was the problem, not an unregulated market economy that emphasized  individual short-term interests no matter how detrimental to the social fabric.

      As descendants of the Irish diaspora, my parents and my Aunt Nellie never lost their conviction that collective action could make our country and the word a better place and that the celebration of solitary acts would do little to promote the public interest. In short, they understood that we are all in this together.

    That is the true message of St. Patrick's Day.


Pope Francis Confronts Right-Wing Politicians

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                  (Chapter 25 of Private Affluence and Public Squalor: Social Injustice and Economic Misery In America)

   Pope Francis presents a challenge not just to self-styled GOP Catholics who describe themselves as "conservatives" but to the entire Republican establishment and its supporters and enablers. In February of 2017, for example, the Pope, while ostensibly rebuking Myanmar for its mistreatment of the minority Rohinga population, exhorted Christians "to not raise walls but bridges, to not respond to evil with evil, to overcome evil with good." The pope continued, "A Christian can never say "I'll make you pay for that.' Never! That is not a Christian gesture.'"

    Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis sent a letter of encouragement to the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California. In his letter, the Pope reaffirmed the church's commitment to social justice and deplored tyranny amid the "gutting of democracies." He also condemned leaders who preyed upon "fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a 'non-neighbor" 

     The Pope's challenge is likely to become even more formidable and divisive as the Trump administration announces its effort to dismantle the existing meager social safety net that Americans currently enjoy and the environmental, safety and health policies that were adopted to protect the planet and our collective well-being. The Pope's refusal to embrace waht passes for  conventional wisdom in the U.S. underscores the  chasm between the market values - that have accelerated the growth of inequality and public squalor - and the inability of classical liberal doctrine to address the misery created by its own policy prescriptions.

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama, borrowing a phrase from Hegel, wrote a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The work became a cause célèbre among those who are often described in the popular media as "neo-conservatives."

     Fukuyama postulated that the emergence of Western liberal democracy, with its emphasis upon individual rights, limited government and market capitalism, potentially represented  the apogee in the evolution of Western  political philosophy: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

    Fukuyama's myopia with respect to the breadth and depth of Western political thought also left him oblivious to the older, still vibrant school of Western political discourse - the conservative tradition, as exemplified in Catholic social teaching. That tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens. The notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

     Equally emphatic is the Catholic Church's rejection of those economic doctrines that have elevated the primacy of the markets and capitalism over basic human need. In his encyclical, Mater et Magister, Pope John XXIII emphasized the central role of the state in promoting social justice: "As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, 'the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.' It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women
and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman."

    Historically, Catholic social thought has insisted that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights, but that it imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, because God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. It is for that reason that Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. 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 ..." Historically , Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

     Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, in contrast to the political philosophy of Speaker Paul Ryan and other eighteenth century liberals who contend that society and the state are abstractions and that only the individual is real. Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights,  but imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

     The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, echoing the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is the abstraction. He rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes that belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves. Which then is the abstraction: the self or society?

    Centuries earlier, it was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, long before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope, issued a guide entitled Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. The bishops insisted that "...[T]he economy must serve people, not the other way around. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions. They also have a fundamental right to organize and join unions. People have a right to economic initiative and private property, but these rights have limits. No one is allowed to amass excessive wealth when others lack the basic necessities of life."

    Because the conservative and socialist tradition share somewhat similar critiques about the limitations and deficiencies of liberal political ideology, the hysteria and discomfit of Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Forbes, a legion of right-wing Catholic thinkers who defend market capitalism such as Michael Novak to Pope Francis' comments are understandable.

     In his inaugural address on January 30, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the "millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day...I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Seventy-six years later, Roosevelt's message should still reverberate among all but the most indifferent.

    In October of 2013, the lingering effects of the Great Recession continued to be felt across the country. According to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed persons, at 11.3 million, and the  unemployment rate, at 7.3 percent, showed little improvement. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was 4.1 million and 8.1 million individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job while another 2.3 million persons were described to be marginally attached to the labor force."

    Equally distressing, according to the Census Bureau as of September, 2014, 15.4 percent of people lacked health insurance, which, while down from 15.7 percent in 2011, at 48 million, was not statistically significant. A US Department of Housing and Urban Development report noted there were 663,0000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless nationwide on a single night in January in 2013. Further, the US Department of Agriculture reported last month that 17.4 million U.S. households struggled to get enough food to eat because money and that in more than a third of those households - around one in eight US homes - at least one person did not get enough to eat at some time during the year. Lastly, as of the end of 2012, 46.5 million Americans (15.0 percent of the population) were reported to be still living in poverty. These statistics reflect what Michael Harrington described in the 1960s as, "The Other America."

    What has caused the misery index in the United States to increase so exponentially? The public policies of the Reagan administration and the successor administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 expressed the three verities of classical liberal economic orthodoxy (or, at very least, its libertarian strand): deregulation of business, tax cuts for the wealthy, and free trade that would enable businesses to seek the lowest costs for labor and to pay lowest prices for the purchase of goods and commodities anywhere in the world. Each of these policies was sold to a gullible American public on the basis of sonorous platitudes such as "A rising tide lifts all boats." They are the very policies that Pope Francis has identified as the among the root causes of misery throughout the Western world. The net effect of these callous and harmful policies has been to unravel the safety net stitched together by Franklin Roosevelt,  Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

    An equally important and baffling question is why so many Americans appear to be indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors?  Pope Francis' call for social justice is profoundly conservative, but to the tone deaf, it sounds far too radical. He has reminded all of us that the status quo is no longer acceptable because it is incompatible with human dignity. Those who seek to know the truth of the human condition will acknowledge this basic proposition. By contrast, the clamor and indignation on the right is solely calculated to vindicate the status-quo irrespective of the suffering and misery it has spawned.   

Trickle down economics doesn't work

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    In 2007, the top 20% of the population of the United States possessed 80% of all financial assets. That same year ,the richest 1% of the American population owned 35% of this country's total wealth, and the next 19% owned 51%.  Together,  the top 20% of Americans thus owned 85% of the country's wealth and the bottom 80% of the population owned 15%.

    In 2011, financial inequality was greater than inequality in total wealth, with the top 1% of the population owning 43%, the next 19% of Americans owning 50%, and the bottom 80% of the total U.S. population owning a mere 7% of the country's wealth. As a result of  the Great Recession which started in 2007, the share of total wealth owned by the top 1% of the population grew  from 35% to 37%, and that owned by the top 20% of Americans grew from 85% to 88%. The Great Recession also caused a drop of 36% in median household wealth but a drop of only 11% for the top 1%, further widening the gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99%.[

    According to PolitiFact and others, in 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined." Inherited wealth may help explain why many Americans who have become rich may have had a "substantial head start". In September 2012, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, "over 60 percent" of the Forbes richest 400 Americans "grew up in substantial privilege". By 2013 wealth inequality in the U.S. was greater than in almost all of developed countries of the Western world.

      In February of this year, President Obama unveiled a $4 trillion fiscal year 2016 budget that proposed to lift spending limits on national security and some discretionary domestic spending.  A month later, the GOP responded with its plan that would add nearly $40 billion in "emergency" war funding to the defense budget for next year and that contained more than $1 trillion in savings from unspecified cuts to programs like food stamps and welfare. The GOP plan also demanded full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the tax increases that finance the health care law.

             "A budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are,"  Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia and a member of the Budget Committee, piously proclaimed. "We've never had the opportunity to partner with the Senate to provide real certainty."

             But if a budget is a moral document, Senator Bernie Sanders correctly noted that the "The U.S. currently spends more money on the military than the next nine countries combined. Yet, despite some 45 million Americans living in poverty, 35 million without health care and veterans throughout the country sleeping out on the streets, the only program that the Republicans want to increase funding for is the military. Why?"

             At a time when the public sector is being gutted, Philip Bump reports in The Washington Post that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than all kindergarten teachers in U.S. The estimated 158,000 kindergarten teachers in the United States, earned an average teacher salary of $53,480, for a collective income of about $8.5 billion for 2012.  By contrast, the 25 top hedge fund managers found that the 25 most successful managers were paid $11.62 billion in 2014.   
            The continued decline in this country's investment in public goods is directly attributable to the "market-based" mythology that dominates current American political discourse. That mythology, which extolls unfettered Social Darwinism, seeks to minimize the role of government on the theory that, all evidence to the contrary, government is the enemy of prosperity. Not surprisingly, these same minimalists also deny the notion of a  separate public interest or choose to define it, if at all, as merely an aggregation of private interests seeking to maximize their self-interests.

         John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society in 1956. In that important little book, the economist worried that the United States had become a nation that tolerated the existence of "private affluence and public squalor." Little could Galbraith imagine that by 2016 the gap between private affluence and public squalor would grow so large that the United States would come to resemble the Victorian England that Charles Dickens chronicled and ridiculed.  

Disenchanted Millennials

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        The polling data to date suggests that millennials are disenchanted with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee and may not vote on election day or, if they do, will cast a dissenting vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.

    Should they opt out of the election or succumb to cynicism or indifference, the consequences to the U.S. political system would be significant. Millennials in the U.S. are a large, self-defined population group. According to PEW Research, there are about 76 million millennials in the United States (those who were born between 1978 and 2000; 50 per cent have at one immigrant parent;  50 percent of Millennials consider themselves politically unaffiliated;  29 percent consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.  But, as a generation, they also tend to be inward-looking, and skeptical of authority and institutions. As of 2012, only 19 percent of millennials said that, generally, others can be trusted.
    A few months ago, voters of the United Kingdom, in a stunning and unanticipated referendum result, voted to leave the European Union. The British pollster Yougov reported that 64% of people between 25 and 29 wanted the U.K. to remain it the European Union, and that 61% of those aged between 30 and 34 wanted to stay. However, the research showed that while those younger than 44 were more likely to vote to stay, the balance tipped in favor of Brexit for those aged 45 and more. And the numbers told the story.  Older voters turned out, younger voters did not. So it didn't matter if the overwhelming majority of millennials preferred to remain in the EU, because they simply didn't show up and vote to express that opinion.

    A similar pattern of voting in the  U.S. presidential election would result in a decisive victory for Donald Trump. And who would be the losers? All of us, the old, the infirm, minorities, the poor, the hard-scrabble will suffer, but the millennials themselves will be the biggest losers as the Affordable Health Care Act, minimum wage legislation, labor laws, Medicare, Social Security, environmental protection, civil liberties, a woman's right-to-chose and student relief would all be placed on the chopping block. A Trump-Spence  administration would open the floodgates to lobbyists, polluters, robber-barons, insiders and craven, self-seeking man-spirited reactionaries.

    It was Abraham Lincoln who reminded us that "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters."

The Revolt of the Masses

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            From his lofty perch as a professor of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid, and as contributor to the newspaper El Sol, the Spanish philosopher, José  Ortega Y Gasset expressed his apprehension at what he described as the rise of the "mass man."  He observed in his seminal book, The Revolt of the Masses, "Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself -- good or ill -- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else."

            A critic of bourgeois culture, Gasset warned about the glorification of mass values - what John Kenneth Galbraith later excoriated as "conventional wisdom " - and the consequences of conformity - the desire to be just like everyone else: "The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: 'to be different is to be indecent.' The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."


            Gasset's primary concern was that when ideas and principles were reduced to their lowest common denominators, democracy itself and liberal values that informed it would be imperiled. As he noted, "The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"


            Gasset's concern was prophetic given subsequent triumph of General Franco and the fascist dictatorship that he imposed upon Spain though his Falange  party. It also has particular resonance in American politics today. That dictatorship, lest we forget, promoted and protected the interests of the wealthy, destroyed labor unions and stifled every form of dissent. all in the name of restoring Spain's past greatness.


             A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen." Ms. Noonan, an unctuous, life-long reactionary and stalwart defender of the 1%, correctly claimed that elites throughout the Western world all too often disparage ordinary people and are increasingly disconnected from those whom she argues are victims of their policies: "the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it....From what I've seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they're aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage."


            Noonan concluded, "our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect."


            Ms. Noonan professes to have little confidence in the candidacy of Donald Trump, even as Trump proclaims himself to be the kind of advocate for the common man and opponent the kind of elite that Noonan rails against. But the "elite" that both Noon and Trump castigate is not the economic elite that controls the levers of power in this county - the Koch brothers, the Romneys and Trumps of this world who received a leg up from inherited wealth - but rather some mythical liberal elite that does not  share their or America's values. In addition, Noonan, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, espouses the same kinds of policies that Trump endorses. Those policies would only exacerbate the chasm between the 1% and the many and further impoverish ordinary working Americans.


            Rhetoric and bluster aside, one need to look no further than the 2016 Republican Party platform that calls for massive tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of Wall Street, abolition of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, repeal of existing environmental laws, restricting the ability of workers to join unions and to bargain collectively through the enactment of a national right to work law, repealing the federal minimum wage law,   cutting the benefits and pensions of public sector employees, and privatizing Amtrak, Medicare and public schools, among other harmful proposals.


            Trump, as Gasset has warned,  is "the type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions:" he epitomizes "the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"

          In the tradition of so many dangerous demagogues, Trump has succeeded in persuading many "low information" voters that, despite his vast wealth, lavish life-style and unsavory business practices, he is the champion of decent, hard-working people whom our economy has left behind. Implicit in his message is the inference that other less deserving people - i.e minorities, immigrants, etc -  have been permitted to jump t the head of the line. Like Generalissimo Franco, he promises to restore traditional values and to make the country great again. Sadly, many of his supporters,especially those who have been most disadvantaged by current economic policies that have favored the very wealthy, because of their anger, frustration and disenchantment, fail to understand how inimical Trump's policies are to their own best interests.   


            In  his dialogues, Plato has Socrates describe people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, who face a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them, and they begin to give names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners can ever come to viewing reality. 


          If Plato's allegory is not to serve as a metaphor that defines this election, informed citizens throughout this country will need to become more engaged and with fact-driven information explain to their family members, friends and neighbors the importance of this election to their own lives and those of future generations of Americans. The stakes could not be higher, nor the danger to our admittedly imperfect democracy greater. 

Donald Trump, Draft Dodger

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           Over Memorial Day weekend this past May,  Donald Trump delivered a message, via Twitter, to Americans about the debt owed to this country's veterans: "Honor Memorial Day by thinking of and respecting all of the great men and women that gave their lives for us and our country! We love them," Trump wrote. Throughout his campaign, the Republican nominee has pledged his support for veterans and our fighting men and women.

           As has too often been the case throughout his privileged life, Trump's words and present recollections stand to stark contrast to his actual deeds and to the truth . Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on Donald trumps' military deferments during the Vietnam War era.  In 1968, during the escalation of that conflict,. Donald J. Trump was 22 years old. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall and had an with an athletic build; and he played football, tennis and squash in school.  His medical record showed that his overall health was excellent, and that, in the past, he had only a routine appendectomy when he was ten years old.

          Despite his overall excellent health,  Donald Trump received several deferments that enabled him to avoid service in Vietnam, despite previous claims by him in which he insisted that he missed the draft solely because he had a high lottery number.

           In April of 2011, Trump told WNYW in April of 2011, the New York Fox affiliate, that he was "lucky" to avoid the draft and remembered the lottery taking place while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "I was going to the Wharton School of Finance, and I was watching as they did the draft numbers and I got a very, very high number and those numbers never got up to," Trump said. In that conversation Trump did not mention he also received several deferments.

          According to his Selective Service records, first obtained by the website The Smoking Gun through a Freedom of Information Act request, Trump received four student deferments between 1964 and 1968 while in college and an additional medical deferment after graduating. Trump graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1968. The lottery occurred in December 1969, conflicting with Trump's recollection of the event.

          Trump received his first two student deferments while enrolled at Fordham University in New York City in June 1964 and December 1965.  He transferred to Wharton as a sophomore that year and received another two 2-S deferments in December 1966 and January 1968 during his last year of college.
          After his graduation Trump was no longer eligible for student deferments and was about to be classified as 1-A, eligible and qualified for conscription. However, in October 1968, he was declared medically unfit to serve except "in time of national emergency," even though he had been declared fit to serve in 1966. In 1972, Trump was ultimately declared ineligible for service and given a final 4-F deferment, purportedly because of of bone spurs.

         In another interview with The New York Times last month, Trump stated that the bone spurs had been "temporary" condition -a "minor" malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him. He said he had visited a doctor who provided him a letter for draft officials, who granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor's name.

         In the 2015 biography ,The Truth About Trump, the author, Michael D'Antonio, described an interview with Mr. Trump, who at one point slipped off a loafer to display a tiny bulge on his heel. And during a news conference last year, Mr. Trump could not recall which heel had been involved, prompting his campaign to release a statement saying it was both. Trump, who has proclaimed that his health is perfect," claimed that the heel spurs were "not a big problem, but it was enough of a problem." "They were spurs," he said. "You know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint."

           In December of 2015, his longtime personal physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, announced that Mr. Trump had "no significant medical problems" over four decades and that, if elected, he "will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." Dr. Bornstein made no mention of the bone spurs but did note the appendectomy from Mr. Trump's childhood
           In an article published last year  in The New York Daily News, Wayne Barrett, a biographer of Donald Trump, justified Trump's evasion of the draft  because it "fit a pattern of avoidance than was commonplace in his generation." What Barrett neglected to mention, however, was the fact that college deferments and medical exemptions supported by physicians' statements were options available only young men of privilege; the children of the working poor and the uneducated were the ones who became fodder in the jungles of Vietnam and  returned home only in body bags.

          Trump insists that he is committed "Making America strong again," a promise that includes strengthening and expanding the welfare-through-warfare machine that has consumed trillions of dollars of taxpayer money since the end of World War II. But, as a draft evader,Donald Trump shares the same lack of credibility that bedevils other prominent GOP weasels who evaded military service such as Dick Cheney and Rudolph Giuliani. If the the past is prologue, Trump's rhetoric is little less than bluster. It simply underscores the fact that the GOP will continue to remain the party of "do as I say and not as I do."