April 2011 Archives

An Easter Message

William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939), Irish poet...

      For Christians throughout the Christian world, Easter is the apex of the liturgical calendar. In the iconography of the Christian Church, the Risen Christ symbolizes the redemption of mankind; its new hope and its new possibilities. The words of the Gospel of  Matthew continue to resonate two millennia later: "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."

       The hope for redemption that is epitomized by Easter is the common legacy of all men and women, whether believers or non-believers, no matter their stations in life or their geographic locations.In our own way, each of us yearns for a better life for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren. But each of us also knows that the quest will too often exact a very personal toll, as witnessed by the crucifixion. William Butler Yeats, perhaps better than most, grasped  the secular implications the Easter message: the possibility alongside the peril and uncertainty:      

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

         The Eastern Rebellion, chronicled by Yeats, was, at the time, ridiculed as amateurish and folly, but within a short time, owing to the brutality of the oppressors, a new Ireland was born. So today, throughout Middle East and elsewhere,the hopes of a multitude are often met with derision and violent oppression, but their dreams too will be vindicated if they persevere.

      In his inaugural address, John Kennedy reminded Americans that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own." The creation of a better, more just world will not be achieved by solitary acts alone for the power of the status quo is always too great. Meaningful, substantial change will only be achieved when each of us of recognizes our shared potential as part of a broader public effort to insist that the voices of all of us - including the poor, the bedraggled, the dispossessed, the ill - be heard and addressed by those whom we have entrusted to govern us.

     The Catholic  philosopher Jacques Martian, inspired by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, reminds us, "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice...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."
            There can and must be a place at the table for all of God's children.In the quest to achieve that goal, we redeem and fulfill ourselves as human beings. This is the message of Easter that all of us should embrace.

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Ayn Rand and the Paradox of Selfishness

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        Over the years since the publications of Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has attracted a legion of admirers, including Alan Grenspan, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Most recently, Congressmen Paul Ryan and Ron Paul, and the latter's son, Senator Rand Paul, have expressed appreciation for Ayn Rand's vision in which she extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct. Given the legacy of John Locke's antisocial individualism in this country, the gospel of selfishness has enjoyed  a long and venerable history long before "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable. Particularly during times of economic crises when ,as now, the social fabric has begun to fray, the advocates of selfishness have regularly reappeared to peddle their political philosophy as a nostrum that they claim will cure all that ails the country's body politic.   

         Selfishness, however, can only be endorsed as a panacea by those who are oblivious to the economic and political evidence from American history and contemporary events. The grim news from the current Great Recession has, for example, once again confirmed one of the central paradoxes of the political philosophy of  individualism 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, as John Locke held,  since "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 of not protecting such inheritances, and because of social and genetic distinctions among "the industrious and the rational" and those who are not, these inequalities increase?

        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 famous essay on the "Tragedy of the Commons" become, rather than a parable, an empirical reality?

       The magnitude and the duration of each economic crisis raises other questions which liberal ideology--and its 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? 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 almost universal acceptance of Locke's vision of social and economic reality has nearly destroyed our capacity to think beyond the world as it is. As Paul Krugman observed in his book, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, the demise of the Soviet Union, and with it, the socialist vision, has left the liberal project triumphant and destroyed our capacity to imagine "a plausible alternative": "For the first time since 1917, then, we live in a world in which property rights and free markets are viewed as fundamental principles, not as grudging expedients; where the unpleasant aspects of a market system--inequality, unemployment, injustice--are accepted as facts of life..."

       Given the increasing economic inequality, one must then be concerned about the kind of America that will exist in next few decades. Will we remain a modern industrial democracy, or will we become a third-world country? Will American culture descend into the kind of savage ethos described by Anthony Burgess in his book, A Clockwork Orange? Is it possible that Hobbes' nightmare vision of a liberal dystopia in which the life or man is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short" could become a reality? In such a scenario, wouldn't Locke's preference for limited government inevitably surrender to Hobbes's absolutist government?    

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Does Anyone Still Care About The Unemployed?

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Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize in economics and ...

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       The U.S. Department of Labor reported that, as of April, 2010, the U.S. unemployment rate had declined to 8.8%. Most economists believe that the real national employment rate is significantly higher than the U.S. Department of Labor's figure shows because the official unemployment index is compiled from a monthly survey of sample households that includes only people who reported looking for work in the past four weeks; but it excludes part-time workers who want to work more hours but can't find full-time employment,  and those who have given up trying to find work.. A Gallup poll at the end of March reported that the true unemployment rate, including the underemployed and the discouraged, long-term jobless who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and who are, hence, are no longer listed among the unemployed, was 19.3%.

          In July of 2009, Peter Goldman reported in an article inThe New York Times  ["U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings By Record Ratio," September 27, 2009] that,as of July, 2009, there were six unemployed workers for every one job opening, which was the worst ratio since the United States Department of Labor started tracking this ratio in 2000. With an official estimate of 14.5 million unemployed, there were only 2.4 million job openings. During the period between December, 2008 and July, 2009, education and healthcare services lost 21.4 percent of jobs, professional and business services lost 21.1 percent in same period, government employment declined by 17.1 percent, and the manufacturing sector lost a staggering 47 percent of its former jobs.

       Despite the sanguine news from the U.S.Department of Labor, this figure has not changed significantly in the intervening nine months. In fact, a New York Times economics correspondent, Catherine Rampell, reported on her blog, ["Lay-offs at All-Time Low, but Still 5 Unemployed for Every Job Opening," March 11, 2011] that "There were five unemployed workers for every available job in January, a ratio that has been virtually unchanged for several months, according to a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics." In addition, tens of thousands of public sector jobs are likely to lost in the coming months as states, at the behest of GOP governors and legislators, opt to balance their state budgets to compensate for declining tax revenues - due to joblessness - by  reducing public payrolls rather than to ask wealthier citizens and corporations to contribute to the general welfare by paying increased taxes.   
       Notwithstanding the grim economic statistics that document pervasive and intractable unemployment across the U.S., Republicans have now decided to wage war against the unemployed. In February of this year, the Florida Senate and GOP Governor Rick Scott announced their support for a measure to restrict unemployment benefits to employees after describing some recipients of these benefits as "slackers and malingerers." GOP State Senator Nancy Detert filed the bill that would tighten unemployment eligibility, make it easier for businesses to deny benefits and push laid-off workers to take lower-paying jobs after they have received 12 weeks of payments.

         In a similar vein, Michigan Republicans last month took action to limit unemployment benefits to newly unemployed workers by decreasing the amount of time someone, who just lost their job, can receive unemployment benefits. If the bill becomes a law, future unemployed workers will suffer a reduction in unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks.

          From the perspective of economic policy, the austerity measures endorsed  by GOP legislators across the country, as exemplified by the budget proposal presented this week by GOP Congressman Paul Ryan, are counter-productive. If adopted, these austerity measures would only compound and prolong the current recession which has been caused by a collapse of the demand function.The absence of demand - in the consumer and labor markets - is directly related to the loss of well-paying jobs and the hollowing-out of the middle class in this country.

        Those who advocate the virtues of the  market economy need, at the very least, to acquaint themselves with the General Theory of John Maynard Keynes to try understand how macro-economic fiscal policies need to work in a recessionary economy. An unthinking, theological devotion to discredited 19th century nostrums from classical liberal economic theory - as advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan - is a prescription for continued economic stagnation and an implosion in the GDP. 

        Equally important, the widespread misery caused by unemployment is corroding the soul of America. In the Sunday New York Times of a week ago, Marti Davis of Knoxville, Tennessee wrote a letter to the editor which said: "While I sympathize with young college graduates who feel misled abut how eagerly the workplace would welcome them, I can't help thinking that those of us at the far end of the worker-age time line  are facing a far more taxing problem. Ask almost anyone over 55 who has been laid off: We are the unemployable in a society that values youth and Ivy League degrees for more than reliability, wisdom and experience....These were to be our golden years well earned after 30 years of toil. But now we are past our 'sell buy' dates, offering ourselves at deeply discounted rates but still stuck here on the shelf, hoping for someone to notice."

       Balancing budgets on the backs of the poor and most vulnerable among us is morally obscene. Those who are untroubled by such concerns because they lack a moral compass will be remembered when the history of this era is written for the harm that they have done, rather than the pious platitudes that they have mouthed. As Shakespeare reminds us through Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."     
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