February 2014 Archives

David Brooks Endorses John Calvin

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        The other day, David Brooks, one of the resident "neo-con" columnists for the New York Times, wrote an opinion piece captioned "The Prodigal Sons" (February 18, 2014). In that column, Brooks attempted to elucidate the meaning of that parable and apply its lesson to contemporary American society. The question raised by Brooks' column is whether Brooks himself understood the meaning of that parable and has properly applied it to today's circumstances.

             In The Gospel According to Luke, 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is narrated which the gospel's author attributes to Jesus:  'There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

            "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

             "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.'  So he got up and went to his father.

            "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'

             "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

             "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

             "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

            "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"

             "The father responded, 'You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.' But he had to celebrate the younger one's return. The boy was lost and now is found."

              After describing the parable in his column, Brooks asks whether, in welcoming back the wayward son, "Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?"

             Brooks then opines, "This is a story about mercy, the mercy of the father, and not a story about distributing the inheritance fairly! ... It is about repentance and contrition, confession of sins before God and man. The father's critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others' hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted."

             Brooks adds, "The father's example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism." Brooks, however, emphasizes that we no longer "live in that kind of a society."

             Brooks then casts his withering glance at the present and describes an American society in which the many live lives of desperation trapped in Hobbesian-kind of dystopia that they themselves have created by their own self-indulgent behaviors, short-term horizons, and moral  relativism. From Brooks' haughty perspective, our society is one in which "in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay -- with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father's example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less."

             For its part the elite, the governing class of which Brooks counts himself as an influential member, out of some mistaken but well-intentioned sense of noblesse oblige, sometimes support policies that are too  judgmental: "We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: "You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder."

            The correct response by the chosen elite to the moral and personal failings of the poor and the working class among us, Brooks argues, is not to moralize or to hector but to emulate the conduct of the father in the parable as Brooks understands the father's behavior - i. e. to show  the wayward, by example, the errors of their chosen behavior: "The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity."

             The ultimate lesson that Brooks draws from the parable is not the central importance of unconditional and uncritical love and acceptance by the father, as was the lesson Jesus sought to explicate in the parable. Rather, Brooks' understanding is that only through the penance of mutual hard work and moral perseverance, will the poor, the undisciplined, the unruly, the poorly educated, the dispossessed of Gods' Kingdom perhaps yet atone for their past sins and become one of the chosen - the Elect: "The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project........The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship."

  Among the shared common projects that Brooks recommend is national service. One doubts, however, that Brooks is advocating universal, compulsory military service for all, including the children who number themselves among his elite. More likely, the shared common projects that Brooks has in mind are akin to the poor houses that Charles Dickens deplored. 

             Fortunately, David Brooks' column has elicited a number  of critics. Michael Roland observed in today's letters to the editor that Brooks' "perpetuates a stereotype that continues to divide us: that those who haven't succeeded are self-indulgent, undisciplined and unambitious. In fact, our country abounds with tens of millions of hard-working and self-sacrificing people who can't advance because of low wages and a lack of realistic opportunity. They don't need lectures from fathers, elder brothers or politicians. They do need economic justice, without which our experiment in democracy will."

             Felicia  Nimue Ackerman's comment was equally incisive: ".... America's poor and America's middle and upper-middle classes did not start out equal. Few of America's poor had any inheritance to squander. This is why redistributive taxation might be a better remedy for poverty in America than bringing the poor and those more fortunate together 'for some third goal' like national service."

             Another reader, R. Alta Caro, replied: "Mr. Brooks probably meant well. But when working 40 hours a week standing on your feet or digging a ditch at minimum wage doesn't earn enough to meet the poverty line, when attending college is too expensive to be within reach of many, and when the most effective contraceptives are priced out of reach for many married women who wish to remain in the work force, is it really fair to equate "poor" with lazy, negligent or criminal?"

             Finally, Sharon Aucoin's letter echoes the insights of R. H.  Tawney and Max Weber,"David Brooks's insidious analogy that the poor are like the reckless prodigal son highlights a troubling and pervasive prejudice against those not born with advantages. One could easily reverse the analogy and charge that the wealthy are the rule breakers."

             Eighty-two years ago, as the United States suffered from the corrosive after-effects of our last era of crippling economic inequality, Franklin Roosevelt collectively inspired a disheartened people. The New Deal that he proclaimed showed that government was not the enemy, but that it might be part of the solution - that it could be used as a positive instrument for the public good to improve the lives of those who were suffering and burdened by an ill-performing market economy. 

             Today, The United States today is saddled with an enormous number of economic, political and social problems that have been exacerbated by the growing chasm between the few and the many. In the past decade, there have been many thoughtful  proposals - including those advanced by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and by politicians such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders - that, if adopted, would ameliorate the suffering of so many of our neighbors.

             The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, ever faithful to the gospels and to teachings of Thomas Aquinas, urges us to return to first principles: "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."

             David Brooks' enthusiastic endorsement of John Calvin's moral philosophy is the antithesis of the kind of commitment to social justice that Maritain prescribes. Because Calvin's worldview is rooted in a firm belief that poverty, crime, misfortune and misbehavior are evidence of serious moral failings on the part of each individual person - i.e. sin -  no amount of collective action - beyond the public opprobrium and punishment that Brooks' decries - will ever cure the ills that Brooks bemoans.

             The Calvinism that Brooks has embraced is a convenient rationalization for the preservation of the status quo. It also serves as an implicit rebuke to everyone who believes that the gospels challenge us to do more - to take care of one another. The central message of the gospels, in stark contrast to the misplaced focus upon the self that Brooks shares with Calvin, is one of our interconnectedness - that we are not alone. It is  perhaps best summed up by the words of the priest and poet, John Donne:

 No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main....


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Is Anonymity the Enemy of Democracy?

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          Democracy in Athens, as practiced in the 5th century B.C., was far from perfect. Aristotle and Thucydides were both keen observers of the Athenian democracy and understood that the city's politics were in fact run by a small elite of wealthy males, who were able to deliberate and vote on important matters because of the vast numbers of the poor, called Sixth-Parts-tenants, who labored daily in the fields as virtual slaves on behalf of the elite. In addition, slaves, non-citizens and women were denied the right to participate in the Athenian model of democracy.


             There is one aspect of Athenian democracy, however, that is worthy of emulation. Every Athenian citizen had a voice in the highest forum of the nation, the ecclesia or assembly, that  met four times each month. On major occasions, when important issues were to be decided, as many as 5000 citizens were known to have attended. Any citizen was permitted to answer the herald's question "Who wishes to speak?" After everyone who wished to speak had been heard, the matter before the assembly was then put to a binding vote and became the government's official policy.

             To the present, a somewhat similar kind of open, deliberative debate process still survives in New England Town meetings: one in which publicly identified citizens express their opinions on matters of policy and town budgets, and are supported or challenged by other publicly identified citizens who debate the issues at hand. After the conclusion of debate, the proposed policies are then put of a vote in which each participant has an equal stake in the outcome and equal influence. 

             There are, of course, important differences in the town meeting model. Unlike Athenian democracy, the number of those eligible to participate in the process is significantly larger, given the enactment of the 13th and the 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the time for debate is more abbreviated. Further, as the economic and time pressures upon voting age men and women have increased, and overall civic engagement has declined, participation in town meetings has continued to decrease. Thus, the continued vitality of these town meetings is now in question.

          This  model of open, participatory democracy is also increasingly under challenge as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in  Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) and the decision of the D.C. Court of Appeals in  SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission,  599 F.3d 686 (D.C. Cir. 2010) . Since those two infamous court rulings, a plethora of 501(c)(3) and (4) PACs and Super PACs have emerged which threaten to further undermine this country's democratic pretenses. If not curbed, this ominous development will solidify the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy dominated by a small elite who, as a result of the vast wealth, have the ability to control the outcome of events through the funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars through anonymous entities with patriotic sounding monikers.

             The Wall Street Journal reports that Super PACs alone spent $567,498,628 was in 2012 to influence the outcomes of the Congressional and Presidential elections. Predictions are that the sums of money spent by PACs and Super PACs will continue to increase exponentially in each successive election cycle. To cite just one example, OpenSecrets.org has reported 1,310 registered PACs had raised $828,224,595 as of July 2013.

             A New York Times editorial on February 15, 2014 noted that Federal law currently limits individual contributions to a candidate for federal office to $2,600 per person. The editors observed that the easiest way to get around that limit "is to give the money to the candidate's 'super PAC,' where no limits apply, to pay for attack ads against the candidate's opponent."

             The Times added, "That's the path chosen by John Childs, a private-equity investor, who gave $250,000 to Senator Mitch McConnell's super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. (Could it have anything to do with Mr. McConnell's staunch opposition to a tax increase on hedge fund managers, favored by President Obama and Democrats?) Joseph Craft, a billionaire coal executive, gave $100,000, and Donald Trump gave $50,000 to the same group."

             Equally disturbing, although Super PACs are required to ultimately disclose the identities of their contributors, under current rules their identities can be shielded from public scrutiny by creating a string of entities within entities within entities, including LLCs upon LLCs. Gail Ablow in Moyers & Company  ("On the Money: The Koch Brothers' Dark Money Network Keeps Growing," January 7, 2014) describes an  investigation by  the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that found 17 interconnected groups backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors was able to raise $407 million in an effort to influence the 2012 campaign.

             Ablow quotes Mattea Gold of The Washington Post: "Its funders remain largely unknown. The coalition was carefully constructed with extensive legal barriers to shield its donors." Ablow concludes that "This opaque network is in gear again to attack the new health care law, kill environmental regulations, and impact the 2014 midterm elections."  

            Is there any way to reverse this trend?  While the signs are ominous, the Athenian model of transparent, public disclosure by actors may yet provide part of a possible remedy.

             There is no provision in the First Amendment that prevents the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service from requiring, as part of their administrative rule-making, three things of every 501(c )(3) or (4) entity: (1) that all PACs and Super PACs must provide, as part of the registration process, and with monthly updates to each such agency, a complete list of all human beings (as opposed to non-natural or artificial legal persons) who directly or indirectly, with labor or money, have contributed to that entity; (2) that all such registered entities, at the time they release any studies, policy papers or political advertising, must also disclose as a part of that release, the names of each and every human being who has contributed  directly or indirectly to that effort; (3) and that the names and addresses of all such human beings simultaneously be made available in a searchable database on each agency's website.

             Private media, including social media, can also strike a blow for open, deliberative democracy. Nothing, other than investor's jitters, prevents existing media sites, including social media, from requiring that every responder or blogger, as a condition of participation, must include, as a part of any communication, a link that accurately identifies the person and provides a brief biography.   

             Anonymity in all of its forms is the enemy of democracy; transparency, identification  and accountability advance the public good. When individuals are permitted to influence political discussions and elections anonymously, whether through PACS or on blogs, democracy suffers as the public discourse inevitably becomes more shrill, more caustic, more negative, more mean-spirited. Civility in public discourse is more likely to be assured when every participant knows the real identity of every other person who is engaged in a political discussion.



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Who Will Stand Up For America's Workers?

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          In 2001, Volkswagen announced that it intended to open an assembly plant in the United States. A gaggle of low-wage, "right-to-work" Southern states competed for the honor by showering the German corporation with promises of taxpayer subsidies.

              Tennessee emerged the winner after it agreed to provide the richest incentives - more than $570 Million in tax incentives and aid. According to dispatch in The Times Free Press (Andy She, "Chattanooga: VW incentives largest in state," July 24 2008), the state's chief business recruiter defended the tax breaks and government t assistance because of the alleged benefits that he claimed the state would come from  VW's $1 billion assembly million. Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner for economic and community development, stated that "The Volkswagen investment in this community is going to have a tremendous economic gain for the entire region....I'm confident we're going to have a very reasonable incentive package when you look at the initial costs of what is being offered compared with a much bigger long-term return."


           The VW plant, which began production in April, 2011, presently employs about 2,0000 and anticipates an annual production of 150,000 cars beginning with a version of the 2012 Passat, tailored to the US market.  Located near Chattanooga, Tenn., the non-union plant pays starting workers about $27 an hour in wages and benefits. That hourly rate is about half the $52 an hour cost of labor incurred by Ford, GM and Chrysler at their plants, where employees are represented by United Automobile Workers. By contrast, the average VW auto worker in Germany is paid $67.14 per hour in salary in benefits


         Since the Tennessee plant opened, Volkswagen has been pressured by IG Metall, the German union with seats and influence in VW's boardroom, to introduce its model of a German-style works council (Betriebsrat) in Chattanooga. In addition, IG Metall supports the UAW's bid to organize the U.S. plant. The worker's council would help set work rules for white- and blue-collar workers, at its only U.S. plant.


            Under the Nation Labor Relations Act, Volkswagen cannot institute a works council in Tennessee unless the employees are first represented for collective bargaining purposes by an independent labor union since company-sponsored unions are treated as illegal shams.

             VW is now feeling increasing pressure from its powerful German union to allow the UAW to organize its plant in Tennessee. For that reason, Volkswagen has not mounted a vigorous campaign to defeat the union drive and some of the company's senior executives have intimated that they might even prefer having a union. After the U.A.W. formally asked VW for union recognition, and announced that a majority of the plant's 1,600 assembly workers had signed cards seeking union representation, the chorus of fear-mongers and anti-union zealots became increasingly louder.


           Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times ("Outsiders, Not Auto Plant, Battle U.A.W. in Tennessee," January 28, 2014) has reported that the push-back from the right-wing, anti-union politicians and vested business interests in Tennessee and elsewhere around the country has been furious. Defenders of the prevailing anti-union environment have chosen to invoke the specter of John Foster Dulles's discredited Cold War domino theory, to warn that if the U.A.W. is allowed to succeed in Chattanooga, that would provide momentum to unionize the two other German-owned plants in the South -  the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina.  


           As a result, the Center for Worker Freedom - a misnomered subsidiary of Grover Nordquist's Americans for Tax Reform, has mounted an anti-union campaign. In addition, Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, have repeatedly expressed fears that a U.A.W. victory would hurt the plant's competitiveness and undermine the state's business climate.  


            Greenhouse also reports that a business-backed group put up a billboard declaring, "Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga," and that the National Right to Work Committee, has entered the fray in which it filed a complaint with the NLRB, falsely claiming that VW officials improperly pressured workers to support hte U.A.W. drive to unionize the plant. Lastly,  Grover Nordquist has set up a group called  the Center for Worker Freedom to fight the U.A.W. and to prevent the election of Democratic office holders who would support the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits.


          Greenhouse quotes Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University to the effect that, "It's unusual how national groups have really gotten interested in this," said. "It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what's happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history."


          According to Greenhouse, Governor Haslam and Senator Corker have both urged VW not to recognize the U.A.W. based on card signatures, but rather that it demand a secret-ballot election. Senator Corker is reported to have insisted that "While I care about Volkswagen, what I care most about is our community and about our households being able to progress and have a great standard of living," and "I'm concerned about the impact of the U.A.W. on the future efforts to recruit business to our community." Corker added, "The work rules and other things that typically come with the UA.W. would drive up costs. It would make the facility less competitive."


       Senator Corker's professed concern for community and for "households being able to progress and have a great standard of living" is pious rhetoric, divorced from logic and from the historical evidence. Tennessee is a low-wage state. It is one of five states that has refused to enact its own minimum wage. As of 2012, the state ranked number 39 in median family household, at $ $42,764, and its per capita income was $23,692.00, well below the national average. Further, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, the state's poverty rate in 2012 was nearly 18 percent, making Tennessee the 12th poorest state in the nation. If Senator Corker possessed a scintilla of intellectual integrity, he would admit that trickle-down economics does little other than to exacerbate income inequality, lower the wages of workers, hollow-out the middle class, and exponentially increase the wealth of the 1%.


          Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, argues "Certainly, plutocracy is less frightening than tyranny; resistance is less dangerous. The chief reason is that money can buy office, education, honor... It corrupts distributions without transforming them; and the corrupt distributions coexist with legitimate ones, like prostitution alongside married love. But this is tyranny still, and can make for harsh forms of domination. And if resistance is less heroic than in totalitarian states, it is hardly less important."


      The third and final iteration of the Kant's categorical imperative states, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means." An economic system that continues to treat employees as merely a disposable means to a more important end - profits, and for that reason, justifies low wages and imposes restrictions upon the rights of employees to better their conditions of employment, violates all norms of social justice and is incompatible with the evolution of democratic principles of fairness and equal treatment.


            By their statements and actions, Nordquist, Corker and Haslam have repeatedly proven their uncritical obeisance to the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. In equal measure, they have shown how little regard or concern they have for the best long-term interests of Tennessee's citizens or for every American who must work to eke out a living.    


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