December 2013 Archives

Opprobriums Justly Earned: A 2013 Retrospective

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    2013 was a difficult year for anyone who tries to remain an optimist. Here at home, gun violence continued unabated, environmental degradation remained unaddressed, and the social safety net, with the acquiescence of millions of poorly educated, "low information" non-participants in the political process contracted further.

      Meanwhile,as social mobility has declined, the gap between the1% of those who own more than 40% of the nation's wealth - or $54 trillion - and the bottom 80 %  - who own a meager 7 percent of the wealth - has grown even wider. As reported by Forbes Magazine in October of 2013, the wealthiest 400 Americans have now amassed a combined wealth that equals that of the nation's poorest - more than 150 million people - or slightly less than half of the population of the United States.

    As this country struggles with basic issues of social justice, our political system is dominated on the right by rigid ideologues who are unwilling to permit their essentially theological convictions to be tested by empirical evidence. What passes on the  left of the  spectrum for political discourse - with a handful of notable exceptions such as U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and mayor-elect Bill deBlasio in New York - is largely monopolized by craven, calculating politicians who are concerned lest they ruffle the feathers of the wealthy contributors who profit from the status quo.

    Sadly, Bill Clinton's "third way" has now redefined, much more narrowly, the limits of what is possible in American politics. It has become a pathetic rationalization for incrementalism and inaction by those who claim to be progressives, and it has enabled those who claim to be conservatives to define the very outer limits of an acceptable political agenda by those on the left. In fact, it was in large part because of Clinton's pandering that President Obama and his Democratic colleagues in the Congress were too apprehensive to entertain a single-payer heath care system, let alone a single provider system such as exists in the U.K. and in Spain.

    In place of a bold, progressive vision for the future that would address this country's unmet needs, we are saddled with political minimalists who insist that we cannot and should not do better. There are even some Lilliputians, such as Senator Rand Paul, who complain that we have already done too much and created a sub-culture of those who are, unlike himself, are addicted to far too generous government benefits.

    In his Second Inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt sought to inspire a beleaguered people who had been beaten down by the Great Depression: "I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
    "I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

    "I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

    "I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

    "But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope--because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

    "If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to comfort, opportunism, and timidity. We will carry on."

    By dint of his personality and his forceful advocacy, President Roosevelt was able to rally a skeptical and weary population to support his New Deal. In stark contrast, the vacuum of leadership today and the corruption our political and economic systems by wealthy special interests have contributed to a political culture that is now dominated by fear, resignation, apathy, suspicion and self-dealing. The pervasiveness of these attitudes is antithetical to a vibrant, functioning democracy.

    Those who insecure are too often unwilling to speak out - or to stand-up and be counted - lest they become victims of reprisals, real or imagined. In a culture is which the present is venerated, history is too often the first casualty. The courageous examples of the slave rebellions before the Civil War or of the UAW sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan during throes of the Great Depression have been conveniently erased from the memories of all but a few Americans.

    But that  timidity has its consequences. The Colombian novelist and Noble Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez, reminds us, "It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams."

    Michael Harrington, at the conclusion of his book, Socialism, describes the potential  harm done by those who are unable to divest themselves of shop-worn orthodoxies that can no longer explain or address current human needs. He cautioned that "mankind has now lived for several millennia in the desert. Our minds and emotions are conditioned by that bitter experience; we do not dare to think that things could be otherwise....There are some who are loathe to leave behind the consolation of familiar brutalities; there are others who in one way on another would impose the law of the desert upon the Promised Land...."

     As we confront the challenges of the new year, Harrington's words stand as a challenge to all of those who seek to defend that which has become increasingly indefensible.

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Christmas and Compassion

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    In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asked the two visitors to his office, "'Are there no prisons?"

    "'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
     "'And the Union workhouses?' demanded Scrooge.  ''Are they still in operation?'
    "'They are. Still,' returned the gentleman, 'I wish I could say they were not.'

     "'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?' said Scrooge.

    "'Both very busy, sir.'
    "'Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,' said Scrooge. 'I'm very glad to hear it.'

    "'Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,' returned the gentleman, 'a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'
    "'Nothing!' Scrooge replied.

    "'You wish to be anonymous?'
    '''I wish to be left alone,'said Scrooge.

    "'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.'

     "'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'

    "'If they would rather die," said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

     A reminder of Scrooge's indifference and insensitivity to the plight of those less fortunate than he seems especially pertinent this Christmas season, as the GOP members of Congress have continued their relentless assault upon the poor and middle class in this country. Wedded firmly to an unthinking and counter-productive belief  in austerity economics, they have insisted upon reducing the number of impoverished American families eligible to receive to receive food stamps and short- term nutrition programs, voted to cut back on Head Start and other anti-poverty programs, and permitted unemployment benefits for millions of long-term unemployed to expire on December 27, 2013.

      At the same time, these highly-compensated  "public servants"  -  who are paid $174,000 annually but have been in session for only 126 days this calendar year - have continued to support fiscal and economic policies that the evidence shoes overwhelmingly benefit the 1% and further exacerbate growing economic inequality.

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who was named after that infamous apostle of selfishness, Ayn Rand, nicely illustrates the GOP's collective worldview. In a National  Review Online op ed entitled, " Is poverty a death sentence?" (September 21, 2011), Senator Paul took issue with the comments of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the sole socialist serving in either branch of the United States Congress.

    Senator Paul claimed that, "To the extent that poverty impacts health, much of it can be attributed to behavioral factors. Over 30 percent of those living below the poverty smoke, compared with 19 percent of the rest of the population. Obesity rates are significantly higher among the poor than the general population, an unimaginable problem for those starving in North Korea or Somalia."

    He further insisted that "One example of how cultural factors impact health among the poor is known as the 'Hispanic health paradox.' According to a National Institutes of Health study, 'despite higher poverty rates, less education, and worse access to health care, health outcomes of many Hispanics living in the United States today are equal to, or better than, those of non-Hispanic whites.' Researchers believe the strong family unit in Hispanic culture, not genetics, explains the paradox."

     Paul continued, "This context does not negate the fact that there are truly needy Americans. But with a national debt of $14.3 trillion and increasing structural deficits, we must be more precise in both how we talk about poverty in America and whom we decide to target with scarce federal resources.... If poverty is in any way a death sentence, it is big government that has acted as the judge and jury - conscripting poor Americans into a lifetime of dependence on a broken and ineffective federal government."

     Senator Paul, invoking the ghost of Ronald Reagan, concluded that, "In the half-century since LBJ's 'War on Poverty' began, we have spent $16 trillion to fight poverty. We now spend over $900 billion a year on over 70 means-tested welfare programs under 13 government agencies. Yet, thanks or no thanks to the federal government, we now have more poverty as measured by government than we did in the 1970s. An all-time high of 40 million Americans depend on food stamps, and 64 million are enrolled in Medicaid. Government is the problem, not the solution."

    Missing from Senator Paul's analysis was any recognition that obesity rates among the poor in the United States might in any way be linked to the ubiquity of inexpensive, starch-filed, non-nutritional junk food that politicians of his mind-set will not allow the FDA to regulate, or that poverty in the United States has increased dramatically in the United States precisely because of the "Reagan revolution."

    Those who do not suffer from historical amnesia will recall that Reagan enjoyed electoral success because he was able to successfully pander to white Southern bigots and the fears of older voters by expressing umbrage about "welfare queens" and "young, strapping bucks" gaming the system, while he simultaneously capitulated to the entreaties of Wall Street. Reagan endorsed cutbacks on government assistance programs to the poor, and he set in motion a series of economic programs that have proven to be inimical to ordinary Americans.

     Reagan's policies - with the assent of craven Democrats in Congress and subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations - have to the present crippled the ability of employees to join unions and to bargain collectively, destroyed company sponsored pension plans and replaced them with Wall-Street- friendly 401k plans, and supported trade policies that have led to the out-sourcing of millions of Americans jobs to the Third World. The net result has been to convert the once vibrant American economy into a low-wage service economy that depends upon a flood of cheap foreign goods to satisfy clueless consumers.

      Senator Paul's rediscovery of the joys of Social Darwinism has now been challenged by a moral voice from abroad. In his apostolic exhortation, "Joy of The Gospel," Pope Francis criticized "trickle-down economic theories" that placed a "crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power."  The pope warned that we have created "new idols" based upon worship of money and the markets by which "human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded." The result, he lamented, is "a globalization of indifference" in which the poor are marginalized and denied their basic human dignity.

    St.Thomas Aquinas was faithful to the message of the Gospels when he stated, "I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it." Even Adam Smith, whose free-market theories Senator Paul would otherwise recommend, observed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations...His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels."

    By contrast, Senator Paul appears to be unable to grasp the essence of what it means to be compassionate. He conjures up a discredited ideology with his brain, but he is unable to feel with his heart. Unlike Scrooge, there is no evidence that the lack of empathy that he shares with his GOP colleagues can ever be cured.

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America's War against Its Children

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             This past Saturday the first anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was commemorated. Despite the solemn observances in Newtown, in Washington and in many other cities and towns across the country, the undeniable fact is that Congress of the United States has failed to do anything to prevent a repetition of that tragedy from continuing to occur time and time again. 


            That sad reality was driven home the day before at Arapaho High School in Centennial, Colorado. The high school is only 13.7 miles from the Century Movie Theater in Aurora, Colorado, where on July 20, 2012, during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises, James Eagan Holmes, dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas grenades and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killed 12 people and injured 70 others. The incident at Arapaho High School also called to mind the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 in which two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed with two 9 mm firearms and two 12-gauge shotguns, murdered 12 students and one teacher, injured 24 other students, caused three other people to be injured while attempting to escape the school, and then committed suicide.

             A year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a billboard near the  Massachusetts Turnpike outside of Fenway Park in Boston now depicts the extent of this country's indifference to the problem of gun violence in our culture. The billboard reports that, since the Newtown massacre, approximately 32,833 Americans have been killed by guns.

             In an article in The Boston Globe ("Pike antigun billboard tracks gun deaths post-Newtown," December 14, 2013), Peter Schworm reported that John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence - the group that sponsors the billboard -stated that the total numbers will rise by 83 every day based upon national estimates of gun-related deaths and that, of that number, eight of the daily deaths from gun violence are children.

              For those Americans who have not yet become insouciant or overwhelmed by the magnitude of this senseless and indefensible violence, the numbers need to be viewed in historical perspective. In December 2012, The Tampa Bay Times, in its "PolitiFact.Com" series, citing a study published by the Congressional Research Service on February 26, 2010, which it supplemented with data for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan taken from the website It reported that 1,171,177 Americans had been killed in all of the country's conflicts from the Revolutionary War to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that "another 362 deaths resulted from other conflicts since 1980, such as interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti..." 

             By contrast, the newspaper observed, based upon data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FBI figures for 2011, that 1,384,171 Americans had died as a result of gun violence including homicides, suicides and gun accidents.  Of that total, the Violence Policy Center, in a 2012 study, found that "Firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages 15 to 24. And homicide, usually involving a gun, is the leading cause of death for black teens and young adults ages 15 to 34."


          Statistics, because they are compilations of dry data, cannot convey the depth of the misery and travail behind the numbers. For every victim of gun violence, the survivors - family, loved ones, friends and neighbors - will continue to suffer from the lingering effects. The sadness, anguish, anxiety, distrust of others and fear that gun violence engenders will remain with them all throughout their lives.

              Aside from the devastating and harmful personal consequences, there is more than anecdotal evidence that the magnitude of the daily slaughter has caused ordinary Americans to lose confidence in the ability of this country's political institutions to address this epidemic of gun violence; and that the fear and distrust that is sown by gun violence has contaminated our public square and impaired our capacity to engage in rational and civil political discourse.        


         A timid, fearful people are a people who are collectively too cowed to imagine or to demand rational answers to an irrational policy. They thus become prey to the fear mongers and demagogues who profit from the status-quo. When children are the victims or witnesses to the carnage caused by senseless gun violence, the consequences are perhaps even more profound: if, as future citizens and leaders, they are too traumatized or inured to the violence around them, the violence will become even more pervasive and accepted. At that point, he United States would devolve into the dystopia depicted by Anthony Burgess in his gruesome novel, A Clockword Orange.  


       In  District of Columbia v. Heller,  554 U.S. 570 (2008), Justice Scalia, in his concluding remarks in a 5 to 4 decision, piously proclaimed, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns..... But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."


        Sadly, Justice Scalia failed to remember that the most fundamental duty of any government is its duty to protect and defend its citizens against harm. A judiciary and a political system that have elevated an abstract right of the few to possess weapons that kill and maim innocent citizens is one that has issued a declaration of war of against its own children and its future.  


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The Right-Wing Confronts Pope Francis

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   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama, borrowing a phrase from Hegel, wrote a book entitled The End of History? 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."

     In his enthusiasm for the liberal project, of course, Fukuyama overlooked that fact that, although Soviet style socialism might have been properly discredited, the democratic socialist tradition in Western democracy would continue to invite the disaffected to reconsider its brief given the excesses of market capitalism and surging economic inequality. As Marx observed in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, liberal political philosophy has reduced man to an inanimate object:  "Man is a machine for consuming and producing, human life is capital. For Ricardo, men are nothing, the product is everything."     

      The Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, before he renounced Marxism and embraced the Catholic faith, was one of the twentieth century's more influential Marxist-Humanists. For Kolakowski, a truly just socialist society could only be achieved by a community of individuals who, individually and collectively, accept their responsibility to act of moral agents: "Thus we profess the doctrine of total responsibility of the individual for his deeds and the amorality of the historical process. In the latter we avail ourselves of Hegel; in the former of Descartes...."


     Fukuyama's myopia with respect to the breadth and depth of Western political thought also left him oblivious to the third 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."


     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 "The 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." 

      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.

     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."

      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, and professedly Catholic politicians such as Congressmen Paul Ryan and John Boehner to Pope Francis' comments are understandable.

     Their reaction shows that, as is also true of Fukuyama, they have very title understanding of the world around them, and they do not understand the purpose of political thought which, to paraphrase Leo Strauss, is to discover the Truth of the human condition.

      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.    




Who Have We Become?

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  Pope Francis' denunciation of trickle-down economics and unfettered capitalism in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium came after numerous reports documented increasing economic inequality in Europe and in the United States. A Reuters new story on October 9, 2013 described a study by Credit Suisse which, in its World Wealth Report, found that global wealth had risen by 68 percent in the past decade to a new all-time high of $241 trillion, and that the United States accounted for nearly three quarters of the increase. The top 1 percent now owns 46 percent of the world's assets.

    A month earlier, the Associated Press along with other news outlets carried an equally disturbing study that surveyed the growth of economic inequality in the United States. It described an analysis of IRS figures  from 1913 to the present by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University. Those economists found that the top 1 percent of U.S. wage earners garnered 19.3 percent of household income in 2012, which was their largest share in Internal Revenue Service figures in the one hundred years surveyed.

    The economists noted that U.S. income inequality has been growing for almost three decades, but that, until this past year, the top 1 percent's share of pre-tax income had not yet surpassed the 18.7 percent share that was reached in 1927. One of the economists, Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, stated that the incomes of the richest Americans might have surged last year in part because they cashed in stock holdings to avoid higher capital gains taxes that took effect in January. The top 1 percent of American households had incomes above $394,000 last year.

      Last month the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that among countries that it studied, the U.S. has the sixth highest poverty rate among households with at least one worker, or 12.1 percent of all U.S. households. The average poverty rate among OECD member countries is less than two-thirds of that level, at 8.1 percent. Additionally, in those households in which all adult members work, the U.S. regisiters the fourth highest poverty rate. The study found that U.S. also ranked well above the OECD average in terms of inequality, with an inequality level that was nearly 23 percent higher than the OECD average, and one which is the fifth-highest among all member nations. The OECD also noted that the level of inequality in the U.S. continues to rise, at a time when inequality in three of the other four nations with higher inequality levels than the U.S. inequality is falling  - significantly in Turkey and Mexico, and moderately, in Chile.


     The rise of the 1% and the oligopolies they have created have eroded any pretense that the United States is still committed to equality of opportunity. Sadly,  a majority of  Americans appear to be oblivious to this abandonment and those members of the elite, who do know better, have been cowed into submission as the American Dream recedes from view. Whether the issue is progressive taxation, outsourcing and "free trade," the rights of employees to unionize, an increase in the minimum wage, universal health care, antitrust enforcement and regulation of the financial  markets, the need for a fairer tax system, or any other fiscal policy that would address inequality, barely a passing mention is made in the popular media or by what used to be called the chattering class.

    We were once an optimistic people, but today a deafening silence pervades the public square, while hysteria mongers, demagogues and the rightwing, incensed by the obvious challenge to their insensitivity, condemn the pope as a Marxist or an economic illiterate. To quote Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity."

    The United States is now on a collision course with history. If we fail to meet the present challenges, our children and grandchildren will inherit a country without a future. But there are still some glimmers of hope, faint as they may be. The elections of Elizabeth Warren to the United States Senate, Bill DeBlasio and Marty Walsh as mayors of New York and Boston, the votes by residents of New Jersey and a county in Washington State to increase the minimum wage, and the nationwide demonstrations by thousands of poorly paid minimum wage workers employed by the Walmarts and McDonalds of the USA suggest that the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement is slowly gaining traction and that the progressive spirit, although still feeble and flickering, might yet burst forth.
    The excesses of the First Gilded Age in the United States were countered by the rise of the Progressive era. Thornstein Veblen,Vernon Parringon, Charles Beard, Lincoln Steffens, Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, among others, provided the intellectual foundations for the policies that were later adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Three decades later, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos depicted the misery of the Great Depression, and John Maynard Keynes articulated the economic policies that led to the New Deal and to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security.

    There is nothing inevitable or irresistible about the political and economic policies that human beings have created, and that have evolved and been readjusted throughout human history. People have the capacity, personally as well as collectively, to change - to reconfigure those political and economic systems whenever they become unresponsive or prove ill-adapted to changing needs.

    The religious traditions of the Western world remind us that each of us is truly our neighbor's keeper. When we become indifferent to the plight of others, we diminish ourselves and become estranged from all that makes us compassionate, sentient beings.

    The choice is ours. Will we give voice to the better angels of our nature or succumb to the blandishments of Mammon?




Pope Francis, Thanksgiving, and the GOP

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  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium, Pope Francis has restated the historic essence of Catholic social philosophy and called upon people of good will everywhere, believers  and non-believers alike, to work for a better, more just world. In his Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope proclaimed that "The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades."



      In unequivocal terms, the pope condemned the free market liberal ideology that has  become the conventional wisdom of this post-modern world: "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."  

      The pope continued his lament that, "Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a 'disposable' culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised - they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the 'exploited' but the outcast, the 'leftovers.'"

      Pope Francis observed that, "In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

      The new idolatry of money, the pope contended, was among the root causes of this phenomenon: "One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption."

     The pope also expressed his distress at the growing economic inequality and he placed the blame squarely upon the ideological proponents of unbridled market capitalism: "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.... In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule."

     As an antidote to the deification of market liberalism, the pope encouraged financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs."

      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 this year, 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 different. 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?

      Historically, Catholics in the United States, who now number approximately 80 million or a quarter of the U.S. population, were overwhelmingly enrolled in the Democratic Party and were a force for political change, given their experiences with pervasive religious bigotry and economic exclusion. As subsequent generations became acculturated to the American ethos, many appear to have forgotten their ancestors' collective historic experiences and have now become proponents of the very political and economic policies that are loggerheads with Catholic social philosophy.

     Today a number of prominent right-wing Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner, Congressman Paul Ryan, former Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claim to be inspired by Catholic ideals. However, their advocacy for budget-cuts that hurt the poor and their trickle-down economics cannot be squared with traditional Catholic social teaching about our collective responsibilities to one another and the need to use government as a positive instrument to promote the public good.

     Also interesting, four of the five most reactionary members of the U.S. Supreme Court - John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas - identify themselves as Catholics but share an ideology that is hostile to any notion of the public interest and which is based upon an extreme version of anti-social individualism. By their judicial decisions, these four jurists have sanctioned pervasive gun violence, endorsed the corruption of our political system by monied interests, and permitted states to continue to deny medical coverage to the most needy and vulnerable citizens through an expansion of Medicaid. 

      The Gospels admonish us, "To whom much is given, much is expected in return " and "What  you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me." More than sixty three years ago, in his only inaugural speech, a Catholic president, John Kennedy, echoed those sentiments and emphasized that "here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

     This Thanksgiving, in addition to our giving thanks, we might commit ourselves to the message of Pope Francis who insists that our collective capacity to promote social justice is greater than the sum of reckless individuals and corporations who have chosen to pursue only their short-term, selfish objectives.

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