March 2013 Archives

An Easter Message

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."

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 Devastation on Sackville Street, Dublin, where it crosses the River Liffey, due to the Easter Rising of 1916. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

       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 to build 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, amidst the suffering countries of Southern Europe, and elsewhere in the world, 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 - believer and non-believer alike - should embrace.

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Will Austerity Prolong U.S. Economic Misery?

 

  Radio commentator and writer Thom Hartmann, among other progressives, has correctly observed on a number of occasions that there is no evidence whatsoever that austerity measures have ever helped to bring a market economy out of a recession or a depression. Because the U.S. is a consumer driven economy, "We cannot cut our way to growth," he has noted.

 

 

    In this lingering Great Recession, high unemployment in the private sector and the loss of nearly one million jobs in the public sector have enfeebled consumer demand and significantly stalled a robust economic recovery. It is a basic axiom of modern macro-economics that, when  consumer demand has collapsed because of high unemployment (and tax revenues have declined at the federal, state and  local levels) the federal government - through fiscal policy (pump-priming) - then becomes the only remaining, viable agent that can stimulate the economy since the wealthy  have already hunkered down to await better days.

     Anyone who doubts that validity of this basic proposition as originally put forth by John Maynard Keynes in his General Theory - and which has been reconfirmed by three generations of mainstream orthodox economists including John Kenneth Galbraith, Gardner Ackley,  Paul Samuelson, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz - need only consider the present examples of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Italy and Cyprus. The austerity demands of the German bankers and their equally myopic surrogates have exacerbated the economic travail and misery of ordinary citizens in those E.U. countries.

     In the United Kingdom, which still maintains its own currency and does not belong to the E.U.'s monetary union, the Tory Party's austerity measures are having an equally devastating effect. John Cassidy, in a February 7, 2013 post for the New Yorker ("U.K. Lesson: Austerity Leads to More Debt"), describes a new study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a London-based think tank.  In its annual report on of the U.K.'s finances, the I.F.S. observed that out that the budget deficit, because of the austerity measures in place, would still be so large that next year the Chancellor, George Osborne, will be required to borrow about sixty-five billion pounds more than he had anticipated - or about four per cent of the U.K.'s G.D.P.)

     Cassidy quotes the Jeremy Warner of the British Daily Telegraph to the effect "This is a truly desperate state of affairs that demands swift and decisive action. We seem to have the worst of all possible worlds, with nil growth, some very obvious cuts in the quantity and quality of public services, but pretty much zero progress in getting on top of the country's debts."

     Cassidy further notes that when Prime Minister, David Cameron and the Tory Party assumed office in May, 2010, and chose to implement an extensive program of austerity measures, the U.K. economy was slowly recovering from the Great Recession. By the final quarter of 2011, the U.K.'s economy had fallen back into a recession, from which it has yet to emerge.

     Here in the United States, the insistence upon austerity measures has continued to choke off an economic recovery. More than a quarter of the population has descended into poverty; and long-term joblessness, particularly among older workers, has become intractable. At the same time recent college graduates, burdened by massive debts, are condemned to menial jobs as waiters and independent contractors. The pernicious policies of the balance-budget advocates and the effects of the sequester have begun to further chill the economic climate. Simultaneously, the 1% - those employed in the financial and technology sectors and in the multi-national corporations that have de-industrialized the economy and shipped middle class jobs overseas - have continued to amass unparalleled wealth. 

     As the gap between the many and the very few has continued to widen, those who have been  to emulate the lifestyle of Nick Carraway in this country's Second Golden Age would be wise to heed Yeats' prophetic warning in the Second Coming.   

      Those politicians and pundits who urge austerity measures fail to understand the long-term consequences: The middle class will continue to erode as the safety net contracts. That trend, if not reversed, could, in a worst-case scenario, precipitate the collapse of this country's consumer-driven, market economy. An increasingly impoverished population will, at some point, become too poor to shop even at Wall-Mart.    

     The philosopher George Santayana reminds us that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The lessons from those countries struggling in Europe today and the lesson of 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt prematurely sought to reign in the stimulus of the New Deal and to address budget deficits (which thereby deepened the Great Depression) are proof positive that austerity measures are counter-productive. They are prescriptions for prolonged misery and suffering.

     President Obama and Democrats in the House and the Senate need to stand firm and to challenge the economic Neanderthals in their midst. The kind of know-nothing-trickle-down-tax -incentives-for-the-wealthy-no-increase-in-the-minimum-wage-free-trade-and-out-sourcing-good-and-unions-for-workers-bad economics that the1% and their elected GOP surrogates are now trying to foist upon a gullible public represent the kind of policy proposals that a more economically literate public would immediately recognize for what they are: The nutty mutterings of individuals who in decades past would have been committed to asylums instead of having been elected to United States Congress.

 

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Pope Francis and Congressman Ryan

   From all accounts, Pope Francis is a humble man. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, and his father was a railway worker. He has lived for more than 50 years with one functioning lung; the other was other removed in his youth because of an infection. Educated as a chemist, he is a man of science. As the first Jesuit elevated to the papacy, he is broadly educated. In addition to Spanish, he speaks German and Italian fluently.


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      Until this past week, the new pope lived in a small apartment, rather than in the opulent archbishop's residence in Buenos Aires and he often commuted by bus and train mingling with fellow Argentines.

     At a Holy Thursday service in 2001, he washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients. He also uged Argentinians not to travel to Rome to celebrate if  he were chosen to become the pope, but to give their money to the poor instead.  

    In a press conference on Saturday, March 16, as reported by CNN, Pope Francis remarked that he hoped for a church that was both poor and "for the poor." He explained that a fellow cardinal from Brazil told him "don't forget the poor" as it became clear that he had received a majority of the votes in the conclave. Pope Francis explained to the reporters present that this thought remained in his mind after he realized he had been chosen as the new pope.

    "Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, then I thought of war," he told the reporters. "Francis loved peace and that is how the name came to me." He said he also thought of St. Francis of Assisi's concern for the natural environment, and how St. Francis was a "poor man, a simple man, as we would like a poor church, for the poor."

      The career of Congressman Paul Ryan, who also claims to be a Catholic steeped in the church's social teaching, stands in stark contrast to the new pope. Now a very wealthy man, Ryan, as the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has waged incessant war against the poor and the middle class.

    Ryan, who was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, attended a Catholic High School there. After his father's untimely death at age 55, Ryan received Social Security survivors benefits which enabled him  to pay for his college education. At Miami University in Ohio, Ryan majored in economics and political science and he became interested in the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. He has described his friendship with libertarian professor Richard Hart with whom he often met to discuss the theories of these economists and of Ayn Rand. As a result of Hart's recommendation, Ryan received an internship in the D.C. office of Wisconsin GOP Senator Robert Kasten, where he began his career as a GOP apologist and sycophant.

    At a 2005 Washington, D.C. gathering that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth, Ryan praised Ayn Rand and said that she inspired him to become involved in public service. In a speech that same year to the Atlas Society, he said he grew up reading Rand, and that her books taught him about his value system and beliefs. Ryan required staffers and interns in his congressional office to read Rand and gave copies of her novel Atlas Shrugged as gifts to his staff for Christmas. In that Atlas Society speech, Ryan described Social Security as a "socialist-based system"

       In an article in the New Yorker ("Ayn Rand Joins the Ticket," August 11, 2012), Jane Mayer quotes Ryan as having said "What's unique about what's happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault."

     As Ryan rose to national prominence in the GOP, he began to dissemble. In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2012, he stated that, as a Catholic, the Church's "social magisterium" was the inspiration for his most recent House budget proposal. Ryan claimed that one essential goal of that teaching was to prevent the poor from staying poor and not becoming lifelong dependents of the government. Ryan further stated that, "A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private."

    In April 2012, after he was excoriated by Georgetown University faculty members and Catholic theologians from across the country because of his budget plan, Ryan repudiated Ayn Rand's philosophy because she was an atheist, and argued that it "reduces human interactions down to mere contracts." He also insisted that  the reports of his adherence to Rand's views an "urban legend" and stated that he was deeply influenced by his Roman Catholic faith and by Thomas Aquinas. But the kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is antithetical to Catholic social teaching.

     Thomas Aquinas argued that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek justice as the summum bonum - the highest good. 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 quotes 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..."

    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 relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

    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.

       The Catholic conservative political tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their full potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens. That notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

        Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian in contrast to the political philosophy of Ryan and other eighteenth century liberals who contend that society and the state are abstractions and that only the individual is real.

     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?

     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..."
                             
    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. 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."

       Unlike the new pope, Paul Ryan has never expressed a commitment to the idea of social justice, nor is he able to comprehend the notion that the public interest is something different and distinct from a mere aggregation of selfish interests. Faced with a growing specter of poverty and extreme economic inequality today, Congressman Ryan remains blithely oblivious to the suffering all around him. How can this insensitivity and indifference be reconciled with the message of the gospels and the social thought of Thomas Aquinas?

     Pope Francis gets the essential  message of the gospels; while Congressman Ryan and his fellow Catholic GOP Congressman, Speaker Boehner, haven't got a clue.

 

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Ronald Reagan's Policies Are Still Killing Americans

  A study released on March 3, 2013 by the journal Health Affairs reported a decline in life expectancy for women in about 43 percent of the nation's counties. The research showed that women age 75 and younger are dying at higher rates than in previous years in nearly half of this country's counties. Most of these counties are located in rural areas throughout the South and the West.


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    Historically, on average, the life expectancy for women has exceeded that of males in the United States by six years, but the disparity has been narrowing according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reduction in life expectancy for some women appears to have begun in the late 1980s, although studies have begun to report upon it only during the past few years.

    The researchers, David Kindig and Erika Cheng of the University of Wisconsin, analyzed federal death data and other information for about 3,141 U.S. counties over the past 10 years. They calculated mortality rates for women aged 75 and younger. They found that nationwide, the rate of women who died younger than would be expected fell overall from 324 to 318 per 100,000 women. However, in 1,344 of the counties studied, the average premature death rate rose from 317 per 100,000 deaths to about 333 per 100,000.

    Two years ago, a similar study led by the University of Washington's Dr. Christopher Murray surveyed county-level death rates. It also found that women were dying earlier than life, especially in the South.

    The two studies by Murray and Kindig underscore important regional differences. The Southern states have the highest numbers of people who still smoke. In addition, the proportion of women who did not graduate from high school is also highest in the South.

     Since the 1980s, the percentage of people living in poverty and those who also lack access to basic medical and dental care in the United States has soared exponentially. This increase is directly attributable to the policies of Ronald Reagan and the "trickle-down" economics that he espoused.   

    Wheaton College economist John Miller in a 2004 article in Dollars and Sense Magazine ("Ronald Reagan's Legacy: His destructive economic policies do not deserve the press's praise," July/August 2004) observed that the economy grew much more slowly in the 1980s than during the 1960s, and that Reagan's tax policies especially harmed low income families. Many of these families, especially white voters in the South and West, were among Reagan's most ardent supporters.

    By the end of Regan's administration in1988, the bottom 40% of households paid a larger share of their income in federal taxes in 1988 than they did in 1980.  Miller noted that the increases in the payroll taxes that financed Social Security and Medicare were greater than the minuscule benefit these taxpayers received from lowered income tax rates.


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    Not surprisingly, the richest 1% were the lottery winners as their effective federal tax rate was reduced from 34.6% to 29.7%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Simultaneously, as Reagan increased the military budget, he slashed social spending. By 1988, domestic discretionary spending had declined  from4 .7% of GDP in 1980 to 3.1%. Miller reported that the most adversely affected were programs for vulnerable low-income Americans that experienced an extraordinary 54% reduction in federal spending from 1981 to 1988. After correcting for inflation, subsidized housing l had lost 80.7% of its budget, training and employment services wre cut by 68.3%, and housing assistance for the elderly suffered a 47.1% decrease.

    These programs, Miller concluded, never returned to their pre-Reagan spending levels. In the meantime, as taxes on corporations have declined precipitously since the 1950s, the growth of corporate welfare and tax loopholes has deprived the government of vital sources of additional revenue that could be used to expand essential public services for ordinary Americans.


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    Mary Williams Walsh and Louise Storey, in an March 4, 2013 article in The New York Times ("Stealth Tax Subsidy for Business Faces New Scrutiny") report that corporations now enjoy billions of dollars in tax-free financing because of a 1986 change in the tax code supported by Ronald Reagan.

    They report: "In all, more than $65 billion of these bonds have been issued by state and local governments on behalf of corporations since 2003, according to an analysis of Bloomberg bond data by The New York Times. During that period, the single biggest beneficiary of such securities was the Chevron Corporation, which issued bonds with a total face value of $2.6 billion, the analysis showed. Last year it reported a profit of $26 billion.

    "At a time when Washington is rent by the politics of taxes and deficits, select companies are enjoying a tax break normally reserved for public works. This style of financing, called 'qualified private activity bonds,' saves businesses money, because they can borrow at relatively low interest rates. But those savings come at the expense of American taxpayers, because the interest paid to bondholders is exempt from taxes."                

     The American Dream is being plundered before our open eyes while politicians and pundits ominously warn that "entitlements" must be severely reduced. But the only programs they propose to gut are the ones that have provided a measure of dignity and social justice for ordinary Americans since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. These are the 99% of the population who owe their misfortune to the poor political choices that we have collectively made as a Americans.

     Politics has consequences. Those who choose not to become informed or involved do so at their peril .   

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