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The Decline of Literacy in the Media

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Ok, I'll confess that as a former English teacher and as a trial attorney, I have been accused of being pedantic. I plead guilty. I'll also admit that the English language, with its irregular verbs,  - i.e.   homonyms (air, heir; ale, ail;  patience; patients, etc) and homophones - i.e. lead (to go in front of)/lead (a metal); wind (to follow a course that is not straight)/wind (a gust of air); bass (low, deep sound)/bass (a type of fish) can be extremely confusing. There are also a litany of nouns that sound similar when pronounced aloud but mean very different things -  try to enunciate, for example, feudal and futile. 

I also admit that, in contrast to Spanish and German, languages in which most words are pronounced as they sound, many nouns in English are pronounced with silent letters and without memorization can not be properly spelled (or spelt, if you're British): as in knife, write, comb, castle, sword, know and hundreds of other words.  But the number of such words is significantly less than in French.

The German language, in contrast to English, has three different definite articles to distinguish the gender of male, female and neuter nouns - Der Soldat, Die Frau, Das Fraulein  -  and the definite articles change in the normative,  dative,  genitive and accusative cases. In addition, the placement of nouns and verbs change where subordinate construction is used as with auxiliary verbs and past participles - e. g. Ich glaube, dass  Ihre Aussage wahr ist. (I believe that your statement has been truthful),

    English, by contrast, does not differentiate gender among male, female and neuter nouns and, because of that, the form of the definite article "the" never changes, regardless of whether the nouns are used as direct objects, objects of prepositions, or in the dative or possessive cases. Further, the use of subordinate construction does not change the sequence of nouns and verbs in a sentence.   
I will also concede that there is a sound distinction to be made between informal English  and its relaxed grammatical rules and formal English. The former is perfectly fine for conversations among friends and in social circles, but the later is required in public speaking and in written commentary lest the speaker or author be dismissed as semi-literate. 

Not surprisingly, as a certified curmudgeon, I have a number of pet peeves. I refuse to excuse the inability of allegedly educated  writers to know the difference between the contraction "You're" and the possessive pronoun "Your. "  Equally inexcusable, is the inability to know when to properly use the comparative  adjectives "less" and "fewer."  And why do so many media commentators not understand know the difference between the prepositions "between" and "among"or  the need to use objective case pronouns as the objects of the prepositions --e. g.  such as "between you and me," not I, and "among the three or four of us," not we? 

But my indignation has been raised to new levels of agitation since the ascent of 24 hour cable television. In order to fill time, the services of endless panels of bloviators and talking heads have been hired as "analysts. " Hardly any are journalists who would know how to do independent  research and have little  to recommend themselves other than their opinions and political pedigrees. Sadly, a number of them seem unaware of the basic rule of subject and predicate agreement. On a number of occasions, I have heard commentators say "There is many sources." Is this too difficult a rule to get straight?

Perhaps as distressing, the repetitive use of objective case pronouns before the use of gerunds  -  where possessive pronouns are required  - has become ubiquitous. It is "his thinking"and "their deciding," not him thinking or them deciding. Is it asking too much of  MSNBC, CNN and Fox News that they require their highly paid panelists to familiarize themselves with the basic rules of English grammar before they embarrass themselves or cause us to cringe in disbelief.

Basic literacy and a commitment to report matters accurately and truthfully are under assault on a daily basis. Words are the vehicles by which we as sentient beings express our thoughts. The improper attention to the use of words and to the rules that govern their use are indicative of sloppy thinking. It behooves us all to try to use words - and the rules that govern their use - properly.  

The War against Workers

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        On March 9, 2015, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a measure that prohibited unions from requiring non-union members for whom they bargained to pay agency fees, striking another blow against organized labor four years after the state effectively ended collective bargaining for public-sector employees. The law, effective immediately, made Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state and the first to do so since Michigan and Indiana enacted similar laws that were intended to hobble the ability of employees to bargain collectively for wages and for better working conditions.

Image result for cartoons supporting unions


           Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, claimed the action then put pressure on other Midwest states to follow suit.  "Every worker deserves freedom of choice when it comes to union membership and dues payment, and if states like Michigan and Wisconsin can pass Right to Work then Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio can too," Mix stated.

            Mix's professed concern for the freedom of workers is little less than disingenuous propaganda since the economic evidence and historical record show that "right-to-work laws" have significantly weakened unions, and that the decline of a viable labor movement is  inextricably linked to rising economic inequality among Americans. As employers inevitably engage in a collective "race to the bottom" the ability of employees to negotiate and demand higher wages and better conditions for work declines.

          As of 2018, twenty-four states had agency fee requirements for public employees. While 28 states have so-called right-to-work laws that prohibit mandatory agency fees, Wisconsin and Michigan had exceptions for police officers and firefighters that permit agency fees covering those workers. In those right-to-work states, unions still represented workers but membership rates were significantly lower. Agency fees, paid by public-sector workers who decline to formally join their unions, provided millions of dollars annually to unions. The loss of that revenue further weakens the power of unions to create better working conditions and to improve the standard of living for employees.

         The unremitting war against unions and the right of employees to bargain collectively for better compensation and working conditions has remained under attack by a well-funded and orchestrated cabal of right-wing pro-business groups since the end of the New Deal. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In a unanimous decision, the Court affirmed that the union shop, legal in the private sector, was also legal in the public sector. The Court held that non-members may be assessed agency fees to recover the costs of "collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes" while insisting that objectors to union membership or policy may not have their dues used for other ideological or political purposes. 

       In the 2018 term of the U.S. Supreme Court, that decision was contested anew. In Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Supreme Court agreed to consider - for the second time in two years -a suit brought by anti-union groups. The nominal plaintiff, a disgruntled social worker in Illinois, challenged the legality of fees that workers who are not members of unions representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.

         In Abood as well as in Janus, the plaintiffs argued that requiring them to pay agency fees to unions whose views they may not share, violated their rights to free speech and free association under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ironically,  two prominent conservative law professors, Eugene Volokh and William Baude, had previously debunked that argument as nonsensical. In an amicus brief that they submitted on behalf of the AFSCME, they argued that even Abood was wrongly decided: "Where Abood truly went wrong... was not in how it applied the new First Amendment objection it recognized. Rather, Abood erred by recognizing that objection in the first place. Compelled subsidies of  others' speech happen all the time, and are not generally viewed as burdening any First Amendment interest. The government collects and spends tax dollars, doles out grants and subsidies to private organizations that engage in speech, and even requires private parties to pay other private parties for speech-related services--like, for example, legal representation. To be certain, these compelled subsidies are subject to other constitutional restrictions. For example, the government cannot compel payments that violate the First Amendment's Religion Clauses or the Equal Protection Clause. But a compelled subsidy does not itself burden a free-standing First Amendment interest in freedom of speech or association."

         For their part, the unions contended that mandatory agency fees were needed in order to eliminate the problem of what they call "free riders" - non-members who enjoy the benefits of union representation i.e. - such as increased compensation and better working conditions obtained in through collective bargaining -  while simultaneously refusing to pay for the costs of that representation. In addition, depriving unions of agency fees could thwart their ability tospend money in political races. Historically, because of the long-standing antipathy of the GOP to unions, unions have endorsed and supported  Democratic candidates.

         In 2016, the Supreme Court considered a similar case, and after hearing arguments appeared poised to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court precedent, but the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia the following month left the court with an even split of conservatives and liberals, and its 4-4 ruling in March 2016 did not resolve the legal question. Republican President Donald Trump's appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017 restored the Supreme Court's 5-4 conservative majority. In the spring of 2018, after the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, by a vote of five to four, the Supreme Court's reactionary majority sided with the plaintiff and, in reversing the Abood decision, held that even the collection of agency fees by public sector unions violated the First Amendment rights of employees who opposed unions. 
 
        "This case is about power," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said. "The funders of this case want a new Gilded Age, this time on steroids," Weingarten added, referring to a period in the late 19th century known for its concentration of wealth among industrialists.

        The union membership rate among public-sector workers was nearly 35 percent in 2017, more than five times higher than the unionization rate for workers in the private sector, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show. Taking away mandatory agency fees could have profound implications for public-sector union coffers. Unions in New York state, for example,
would lose an estimated $110 million per year without mandatory fees from non-members, according to the business-backed Empire Center for Public Policy.  The loss of this revenue to unions would be especially damaging since unions have historically been the agents that have promoted a higher standard of living, income equality, job security, and equal treatment of all employees in the workplace.  

         The private sector analogue to Janus v. AFSCME is Epic Systems v. John Lewis, a series of cases that U.S. Supreme Court also decided in its 2018 term. The employees in the Epic cases complained that their employers underpaid them in violation of the wage and hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 201- et seq. and that, under  §7 of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §101-et seq., they were entitled to engage in concerted action - such as class action arbitrations -  to vindicate their rights.

         Supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a virtual smörgåsbord of right-wing funded institutions and "public interest" groups with deliberately deceptive names such as the Equal Employment Advisory Council, as well as by the Trump administration, the plaintiffs in Epic argued that the Federal Arbitration Act - that was passed in 1925  - should be construed to ignore and override the statutory provisions of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA, which was passed in1935 during the New Deal, was enacted to counter widespread strikes and labor violence between employees  - who were denied the right to organize and to bargain collectively - and business owners. These workers and their families were also often the victims of thugs and special police hired by employers. Many others were required as a condition of their employment to sign "yellow dog" contracts - agreements between workers and employers in which the employees - who lacked equal bargaining power - agreed not to join or support a union.   

         The NLRA, at 29 U.S.C.  §151 -"Findings and declaration of policy" - explicitly states "[I]t is hereby declared to be the policy of the Untied States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions of the free flow of commerce ...by encouraging  the practice and procedure of collective bargaining..." In response to the plaintiffs' claims, the unions replied, "The right to engage in  concerted protected activity is ' a bedrock principle of federal and policy' that has repeatedly been invoked by the Board and the courts over the past eight decades....Just as an employer cannot deprive its workers of that substantive statutory right by insisting that they agree to arbitrate all workplace disputes instead of picketing, striking, or engaging in any other form of legally protected protest activity, neither can it opt out of the core, substantive worker-protected right established by Norris-LaGuardia and the NLRA by requiring workers to prospectively waive their statutory right to improve workplace conditions through collective adjudication."    
 
        At issue in Epic was the question of whether employers could, as a condition of employment, require employees to sign arbitration agreements that require them to submit all work-related disputes to individual arbitrations, contrary to §7 of the National Labor Relations Act; irrespective of whether they belonged to unions; and irrespective of whether existing negotiated collective bargain agreements required that work-related disputes be adjudicated between the unions, as the freely -chosen agents of the employees, and the employers through the grievance and collective arbitration process.
 
        In another five-to-four decision, writing on behalf of the right-wing majority, Justice Gorsuch ignored established canons of judicial interpretation and the unambiguous legislative history of both acts. As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissent the Federal Arbitration Act was explicitly passed to provide a forum to resolve disputes among merchants, not workers. By contrast, the National Labor Relations Act and its immediate predecessor, the Norris-LaGuardia  Act, were passed to guarantee the rights of all employees to organize unions, to bargain collectively to improve wages and working conditions, and to engage in collective actions to achieve those and related ends. 
     
        The decision in Epic Systems may very well spell the death of organized labor in the private sector and will harm millions of Americans who work for wages, whether they belong to unions or not since they would now be reduced to the status of indentured servants.

          The labor history of the United States in the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century was often violent and bloody. Most state courts treated labor unions and strikes as illegal conspiracies in restraint of trade and labor organizers and striking union members were regularly arrested, imprisoned and often shot by Pinkerton detectives,
private militias raised by employers, and National Guard soldiers who were mustered into service by business-friendly governors in many states.

          Ever so slowly, the tide began to turn. In the 1930s, as the effects of the Great Depression became more pronounced, industrial unionism, organized under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), emerged. With the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the right of all workers "to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing" was pronounced for the first time to be national public policy. Other New Deal legislation included the Walsh-Healey Government Contracts Act, which required the payment of prevailing wages on government contracts in excess of $10,000; the Railroad Retirement Act; and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which provided for the first time, with certain exceptions, a nationwide minimum wage floor and maximum workweek of 40 hours per week within three years of its enactment date.
      
       Courageous individuals such a Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Eugene Debbs, John L. Lewis, and Walter and Victor Reuther, among thousands of others, struggled to secure social and economic justice for American workers. Organized labor brought to America the right to grieve mistreatment in the workplace, "just cause" termination standards, the eight hour day, weekends off, overtime and rest break regulations, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and pensions.
    
       Since the 1940s, the American labor movement has been forced into retreat. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the election of a Republican Congress in 1946, right-wing liberalism and laissez-faire economics one again became resurgent. The first great success of New Deal critics was achieved with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, that was passed over President Truman's veto. The effect of this legislation was to outlaw "closed shops" and to permit individual states to allow "open shops"--i.e. shops in which elected unions could not require all of the employees to belong to the unions, irrespective of whether the non-union employees also received and enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining.
  
        As a result of that legislation, corporations began an inevitable migration to the South where welcoming state legislatures hastily enacted "right-to-work" laws. The migration of these manufacturing companies away from the unionized urban centers of the Midwest and North left
hundreds of mill towns impoverished and desolate, and the union movement, over time, has been effectively eviscerated.

         By January, 2018, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions stood at  14.8 million in 2017, which was an slight increase of 262,000 from 2016. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.  

         Many non-union employees still do not seem to understand that their ability to influence working conditions and wages, as solitary individuals who lack comparable bargaining power with managers and owners of business, is virtually nil. Apparently, however, the myth of the autonomous, self-made individual who can receive recognition, remuneration and advancement solely by dint of one's own hard work continues to resonate in the workplace to the present, notwithstanding all of the evidence to the contrary.
   
       This myth now resonates at the top level of the federal government as Andrew Puzder, a fast food executive and opponent of minimum wage and other labor laws, was chosen by Donald Trump to become the Secretary of Labor. A fierce critic of government regulation and an Ayn Rand enthusiast, Puzder has expressed a preference for automation in the workplace. As he noted, machines are much easier to deal with than humans: "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case."
  
        Even among the few unionized workers still employed in manufacturing, downward economic pressures have forced many unions to acquiesce to a two-tier pay system imposed by management: younger workers now make substantially less per hour than more senior employees who perform the same work. The effect of this two-tier system denies younger workers upward mobility and divides workers based solely upon dates of hire: "The changing job market is undercutting entry-level wages for those who do not go to college. In the 1960s and 1970s, you saw high school graduates getting good jobs at Ford and AT&T, jobs that in inflation-adjusted terms were paying $20 or $25 in today's wages," said Sheldon Danziger, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. "Nowadays most kids with just high school degrees will work in service-sector jobs for $10 or less..."
    
      The decline of unions explains in large part why wages have remained stagnant for  decades. As the power of unions has eroded, companies have gained the upper hand and are able to unilaterally dictate to individual employees the terms and conditions of their employment. A survey conducted by Evan Starr, a management professor at the University of Maryland, found that one in five employees in the U.S. were subject to non-competition agreements in 2014.   Matthew Marx, a professor at M.I.T's Sloan School of Management, found that employers typically present  workers with  non-compete contracts when the employers lacked negotiating leverage. The use of  non-competition agreements has been expanded to restrict the ability of  even low-wage workers to accept successor employment at "competitors" for higher wages in a wide range of jobs from sales to technical services.

       Besides non-competition agreements, many companies have increasingly used their economic clout to impose non-poaching agreements that eliminate or severely restrict the ability of franchisees to hire workers from other locations within the same franchise. The "non-poaching"  agreements are widespread among franchises as diverse as  Burger King, H.R. Block and Jiffy Lube, among others.
  
       Eric Posner and Alan Krueger have pointed to the existence of  non -competition and anti-poaching agreements as evidence of  "monopsony power." The term is used by economists to describe the ability of an employer to suppress wages below the efficient or perfectly competitive level of compensation. This is done  through the use of non-compete clauses and non- poaching agreements that are aimed at the most vulnerable workers.

        As Posner and Krueger  note, "The studies show that common features of the labor market give enormous bargaining advantages to employers. Because most people sink roots in their communities, they are reluctant to quit their job and move to a job that is far away. Because workplaces differ in terms of their location and conditions, people have trouble comparing them, which means that one cannot easily 'comparison shop' for jobs. And thanks to a wave of consolidation, industries are increasingly dominated by a small number of huge companies, which means that workers have fewer choices among employers in their area." They conclude that, ''When employers exercise monopsonistic power, wages are suppressed, jobs are left unfilled, and economic growth suffers. Unions used to offset employer monopsony power, but unions now represent only 7 percent of the private sector."

          Harold Meyerson has described the correlation between union membership and economic equality in article in the American Prospect in 2012. He observed that "From 1947 through 1972, productivity in the United States rose by 102 percent, and median household income rose by an identical 102 percent. In recent decades, as economists Robert Gordon and Ian Dew-Becker have shown, all productivity gains have accrued to the wealthiest 10%. In 1955, near the apogee of union strength, the wealthiest 10 percent received 33 percent of the nation's income. In 2007, they received 50 percent." 

            Colin Gordon, a Professor of History at the University of Iowa, has argued that "One hallmark of the first 30 years after World War II was the 'countervailing power' of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) and their ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike. There were stark limits to union power--which was concentrated in some sectors of the economy and in some regions of the country--but the basic logic of the postwar accord was clear: Into the early 1970s, both median compensation and labor productivity roughly doubled. Labor unions both sustained prosperity, and ensured that it was shared."

        The pervasiveness of anti-union bias remains so potent in right-to-work states and so ingrained in the false consciousness of its citizens that, as recently as February 2017, Boeing employees in South Carolina voted against their own best interests. The National Labor Relations Board announced  that 74 percent of the 2,828 workers cast ballots voted against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).  In a statement, IAM lead organizer Mike Evans said: "We're disappointed the workers at Boeing in South Carolina will not yet have the opportunity to see all the benefits that come with union representation. "   

          The mythology behind "right-to-work" laws and companion efforts have largely succeeded in gutting this country's labor laws but they have produced results quite different from the economic theory their proponents endorse. As Isaiah Berlin sagely noted, "Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep."  In a world of unrestrained competition, only the few, the wealthier, the more powerful, the more resourceful, the better educated, the more mobile, will be able to maximize their opportunities; everyone else gets left behind or becomes "road kill."
   
        If unregulated market economies are the answer to economic progress, as corporate CEOs and their lobby of sycophants and enablers insist, how then does one explain the implosion of Wall Street and the related financial scandals that destroyed trillions of dollars of wealth possessed by ordinary Americans?   Conversely, if government regulation of the economy is the problem, how do we explain the growing economic inequality in the U.S? Why is it that, despite what right-wing libertarians claim is a confiscatory tax code, the wealth of the top 1% continues to grow exponentially?
     
       Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been criticized by the Republican noise machine and its right-wing media outlets for stating the obvious: that each of us has depended for our success, to some degree, upon the help, assistance and inspiration that we received from others. Further, she has emphasized the obvious: that public goods - rail, road and airport infrastructure, public education, government support for R&D, public health, food and safety regulation, environmental regulation,  civil rights protection, consumer protection, anti-trust regulation, protection of intellectual property - are essential  prerequisites for economic success.Consider, for example, the rewards reaped today from the government funding and research to create satellite/GPS technology and the internet.

       Market economies are affected by the frailties and foibles of human actors. Many of these actors are motivated by selfish, short-sighted concerns; but the consequences of their actions harm everyone. It is for that reason that regulation in the public interest and investment by the government - as the agent of the people in a democracy - are essential antidotes to the temper the excesses of capitalism and to create the foundations for a truly just society.

      The continued clamor to reduce public regulation and investment is a siren call that is orchestrated by corporations and the wealthy elite who want free reign to continue to game the system. Ordinary citizens need to resist that clamor and to understand that their true, long-term interests have little in common with the interests of the top 1%.  As Nicholas Kristof reminds us "If you're infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan."

Ronald Reagan's Policies Are Still Killing Americans

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     Decades before Donald Trump became President, the GOP had already issued a declaration of war against the interests of ordinary Americans. A 2013 study released 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 were dying at higher rates than in previous years in nearly half of this country's counties. Most of these counties were located in rural areas throughout the South and the West.


    Historically, on average, the life expectancy for women has exceeded that of males in the United States by six years, but that 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.   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. 

    Equally a cause for concern, in June of 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a study which showed that, as of 2016, more non-Hispanic whites died than were born in twenty-six states; more than at any time in U.S. history. The study reported that about 179 million residents - or approximately 56 percent of the U.S. population - lived in those 26 states. By contrast, white deaths exceeded births in just four states in 2004 and seventeen as recently as 2014.

    As reported by the New York Times, many of the states in which these declines in birth have been documented are in rural states that voted for Donald Trump. For example, Martin County, in eastern North Carolina, first experienced the decline in white births in the late 1970s, a phenomenon that is now state-wide. The Times quoted Michael Brown, 66, a retired hospital maintenance worker in Robersonville whose two daughters went away to college and never moved back - a pattern typical for young people throughout the county, "There are just hardly any young people in the county anymore "We are the last generation who stayed with their parents," said Mr. Brown.   

    There is also more than anecdotal evidence that the opioid crises that continues to  decimate American communities is fueled by an increasing perception, endlessly reiterated by Reagan, that we should not look to our government to do for us what we can not do by ourselves. As one West Virginia academic  opined, " he opioid epidemic is merely a symptom of a much larger crisis, one we as Americans must learn to solve: the crisis of isolation, despair and hopelessness."
    
    Wheaton College economist John Miller 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.

    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 from 4 .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 had lost 80.7% of its budget, training and employment services were 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.

     In a similar vein, Mary Williams Walsh and Louise Storey, report that as of 2013 corporations then enjoyed 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." And, "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."   
 
    In a paper first published in 2010, now released as a book,  Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson reported that one in ten people in Japan and Germany suffered from some form of mental illness, compared to one in four Americans. The explanation for this disparity, according to those researchers, is increasing U.S. inequality: As income distribution becomes increasingly
unequal, the society fabric is ripped apart, which adversely affects, to varying degrees,  the mental health  of everyone who lives within the society.

      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.    

When Economists Become Theologians

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The University of Paris economist Thomas Piketty has marshaled a wealth of impressive data in his book Capital in the 21st Century. From an historical  perspective, the data shows that the market-based economies in the Western World - save for the brief, unique period caused by the economic disruptions of two world wars - have spawned increasing economic inequality.

Piketty also predicts that, without vigorous public intervention in the marketplace - as the rate of return on investments continues to exceed the rate of economic growth - economic inequality will continue to accelerate. Not surprisingly, Piketty has been denounced on the right as a neo-Marxist or a dangerous social democrat because he has had the audacity to suggest, as a basic proposition of democratic governance, that economic policy should be subordinate to political policy.  

Simultaneously, Piketty's colleague and collaborator at the London School of Economics, Gabriel Zucman, has reported in one of his many studies, Tax Evasion on Offshore Profits and Wealth, that U.S. corporations now declare 20% of their profits in tax  havens - a  tenfold increase since the 1980s - and that tax avoidance policies have reduced corporate tax revenues by up to a third.  At the global level, Zucman argues that 8% of the world's personal financial wealth is now being held offshore, costing more than $200 billion to governments annually and that decisions to shift to tax havens and offshore wealth havens are increasing.

  In the current economic debate, Piketty and Zucman - along with a few other prominent exceptions such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz - remain the outliers in a profession that is overwhelmingly dominated by defenders of the status quo and conventional economic wisdom.

One such pathetic example of the latter is Tyler Cowan, an economist at George Mason University. Cowan enthusiastically cited a study which noted that, although economic inequality was rising in countries such as the U.S., "the economic surges of China, India and some other nations have been among the most egalitarian developments in history."
      
  Cowan piously concluded that "the true egalitarian should follow the economist's inclination to seek wealth-maximizing policies, and that means less worrying about inequality within the nation... [C]apitalism and economic growth are continuing their historic roles as the greatest and most effective equalizers the world has ever known."   
     
   In a prior book, Average is Over, Cowan extolled the rise of what he chronicles as the "big earners" in the emerging meritocracy that he foresees. He also argues that, rather than expand the safety net, governments should curtail spending.
  
      As an alternative and to maintain civic peace, Cowan suggests that local governments might offer engaging distractions to those whom he has identified in his Darwinian dystopia as the "big losers" and the "zero marginal product" workers. These "big losers" and "zero marginal product" workers presumably include the 162,000 U.S. architects and engineers whose jobs were shipped to third-world counties between 2000 and 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the 180,000 computer IT and programming professionals who, according to Yale University's Jacob Hacker, lost their jobs between 2000 and 2004.
   
     Perhaps taking an unconscious cue from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Cowan proposes a palliative that he suggests would enable the 49% mooching class that Mitt Romney decried to live contented lives, albeit with reduced means and with substantially reduced expectations: "What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living? We would build some 'tiny homes' [that]...might be about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. We would build some very modest dwellings there, as we used to build in the 1920s. We would also build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.  The quality of the water and electrical standards might be low by American standards, but we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless..."  

        Cowan's paen to globalization and the onward march of capitalism blithely ignores the systematic, well-documented failures of the capitalist system he extols. His apologia offers small solace to the millions of Americans whose jobs have been lost to out-sourcing and the de-industrialization of the U.S.; his soothing entreaty that, in the long run, everything will work out nicely - some fine day - ignores Keynes's sage observation that "In the long run, we will all be dead."  One also suspects that Cowan would be less sanguine about the economic landscape he surveys if he were informed that his tenured  position at George Mason University were about to be converted into an adjunct faculty position.  

  All of the empirical evidence, Cowan and other apologists notwithstanding, suggests that out-sourcing, deregulation, austerity, the commitment to the myth of "free-trade," -i.e. "laissez-faire" in trade policies - and reduced government regulation have been major contributing factors to the loss of manufacturing, stagnating wages and the growing impoverishment of the former middle class.

  The net effect of current economic policies - sadly endorsed by Democrats as well as Republicans-  has been an extraordinary concentration of wealth and power into the hands of financiers and other moneyed interests who have become the winners in this game of  economic Russian roulette. As a result, the decisions and predilections of fewer and fewer individuals now determine the outcomes in the American economy, while the overwhelming majority of Americans have little ability to influence macro-economic trends or economic and political policies.

         The contrast between "private affluence" and "pubic squalor" in America has only grown worse in the subsequent decades since Galbraith first used those terms to describe what he foresaw as evolution of inequality in the U.S. economy. The disparity between the few who are wealthy and the many who are poor has widened alarmingly in the United States since the advent of the Reagan era and the kind of "trickle-down" economics to which he and his advisers subscribed.
         In his General Theory, Keynes observed that "the ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the salves of some defunct economist....But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests which are dangerous for good or evil." 

           The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy has long since ceased to explain present day economic reality, but the intellectual chains of that received wisdom from long since dead economists continue to control the public narrative. Unfettered competition, based upon allegedly free market decisions made by solitary actors in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers, is a myth that does not create individual opportunity for the vast majority of Americans, nor has it maximized business opportunities. 

         Ultimately, the entire process is self-defeating and creates a negative-sum game: As entrepreneurs seek to maximize their profits by paying the lowest possible costs for labor and materials, the middle class is hollowed out. As the income of the middle class contracts, aggregate demand is reduced. As domestic spending contracts, the purchase of goods and services contract. Without the intervention of the government into market economies, as Hyman Minsky has argued, the buyers and sellers of goods and services become locked in mutually destructive death throes.

In addition, given a shared mind-set that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, the defenders of the economic status-quo remain oblivious to the adverse effects of poverty, the lack of health care, pollution, climate change and to basic principles of social justice.  Further,  the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.

Market economies are affected by the frailties and the foibles of human actors. Although many of these actors are motivated by selfish, short-sighted concerns, the consequences of their actions harm everyone else. It is for that reason that regulation in the public interest and investment in public goods by the government - as the agent of the people 
in a democracy - are essential antidotes to the temper the excesses of capitalism and to create the foundations for a truly just society.

Memorial Day, 2017

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   Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the terrible toll that war has inflicted upon this country and its citizens.     

     Image result for washington rules bacevich         

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

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

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, seventy-one years after the end of World War II and sixty-three years after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three theaters, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three theaters have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

    In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from the daily experiences. The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

    After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight, out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality. Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Their cravenness is enthusiastically endorsed by an uncurious and profoundly uninformed president who evaded military service during  the Vietnam War and who embraces autocrats around  the world threatens to destabilize Europe and the Middle East. President Trump and many of the same Congressmen who  decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money are now determined to deny health care to 23 million Americans who have received it under the Affordable Health Care Act.

     Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $6 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated. That amount of money would be sufficient to guarantee health care to every American and to rebuild this country's decaying infrastructure.

     The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing domestic problems here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

      War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.

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



 

Pope Francis Confronts Right-Wing Politicians

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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


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

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, because God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. It is for that reason that Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. As Aquinas observed, "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..." Historically , Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Shall We Corporatize Public Education Too?

   From its earliest beginnings in a 1647, when the Massachusetts General Court required every  town in the colony with a population of more than  fifty people to found, operate and fund schools, public education in the United States today has grown to encompass more than 15,000 separate school districts across the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are now 98,817 public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the country currently spends over $500 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education, K-12, and that, on average, school districts spend $10,591.00 per pupil.
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    Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, testing students regularly, eliminating collective bargaining rights and tenure for teachers, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools.

    Some of the more extreme measures proposed would dismantle public education entirely but use taxpayer funds to replace it with a system of vouchers for use in private schools and for-profit schools. Today, "private school choice" programs, as these vouchers are called by the  Alliance for School Choice, have been enacted in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Last year, during a time when states across the nation drastically slashed spending for public education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation. The net effect of the more extreme proposals would be to remove education from public oversight and regulation, and permit unlicensed, poorly-paid and poorly-educated individuals to teach creationism, others forms of pseudo-science, extremist religious doctrines, and right-wing politics, history and economics without fear of censure and without any accountability whatsoever.

    A number of the reforms that have gained cachet in the mainstream media have been touted by President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and former D.C. Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, among others. Interestingly, none of these proponents of public school reform have ever taught in a public school or have any direct experience in trying to challenge students, particularly students under stress, to  learn. The larger question, however, is: will any of their proposed reforms actually improve public education in the United States or will they further undermine it?

       The October edition of Atlantic magazine, Nicole Allen documents the travails of American public education. Students in the United States ranks 21st among counties in Science; 14th  in reading skills, and 30th in Mathematics skills, according to the International Student Assessment for 2009. By contrast, students in Finland rank 2nd in Science, 3rd in reading sills, and 6th in Mathematics skills.

    Many might argue that any comparison between Finland and the U.S. is meaningless, given the size of the population and racial diversity of the U.S. in contrast to Finland. But is it possible that the example of Finland can still instruct, and if so, how?   

    First, Finland has created uniformly high standards for all of its students and those standards are supported and insured throughout the entire country. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the federal government and the states impose, at best, minimal requirements upon local school districts.

    Secondly, only 7% of the applicants to the University of Helsinki's teacher programs are accepted. Upon completion of their education and practicum, teachers in Finland are paid more than 80% of the average of full-time earnings of college-educated adults in that country. By contrast, in the United States, teachers are uniformly poorly paid and are often recruited  from the bottom quartile of college graduates. As the Atlantic data shows, even in more selective education programs such as those at Johns Hopkins School of Education and at Columbia University's Teachers College, 53% and 56% of the applicants respectively are accepted.

       Third, teachers in Finland, as recognized and valued professionals  - all of whom are also unionized - are given great latitude in their methods of teaching; and collegiality, rather than a top-down management model, governs decision-making in the schools. By contrast, here in the United States, the GE management model of public execution and intimidation  - exemplified by the likes of Michelle Rhee - controls educational discourse.

    Lastly, and most importantly, Finland's education system succeeds because its students are ready and prepared to learn. As a social democracy, Finland has perhaps the Western world's most extensive safety net. The country has universal medical care, strong family-support, child welfare, and nutritional programs, minimal poverty and its population would never tolerate the kind of extreme economic inequality that is currently fashionable in the United States .

    Here in the United States, the evidence shows that the problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.

    In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."

         These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic under-development, and oppositional behavior." Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

    The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."

    Horace Mann believed that education had the potential to become  "the great equalizer in the conditions of men." For that reason, he became an early advocate of the importance of public education for all citizens. Later, John Dewey insisted that "Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."   

    The continued de-funding and fragmentation of American public education- as exemplified by the growth of charter school movement - coupled with the relentless, continuing assault upon teachers, the imposition of management models dawn from the private sector, the continued dumbing down of curricula, and proposals to turn public education over to entrepreneurs and for-profit business are precisely the wrong direction for American public education. Sadly also, these proposals show how far this country has strayed from the grand visions of Horace Mann and John Dewey.

       In his important book, What Money Can't Buy, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel warns against the continued creep of the values of market economy into the public square,  the end result of which he fears will be the creation of a market society in which everyone and everything is for sale. Decades earlier, the Marxist philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse argued that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."

    Everyone who is concerned about the future of this fragile democracy and about the education of our children and grandchildren must hope that it is not too late to reverse the trend toward the continued corporatization of American public education.

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Is Islam at War with Modernity?

      Those who write the narratives usually control a culture's collective memories and its understanding of history. Even when the victors write the narrative, however, there is usually a counter-narrative that percolates and festers among the vanquished. These competing narratives complicate religious, ideological, political and economic disputes and often make them intractable. This is especially true of the present divide between the West with its secular democracies and those countries throughout the Middle East and Asia where government policies are professedly shaped by fidelity to Islamic principles. 


  islam-is-not-the-enemy-210x300 

     Among their historic grievances, Muslims often point to the Crusades and the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, and the colonization of  the Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco by the French and  British in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

     The Western World has its own narrative. Long before the Crusades, in 711, Islamic armies invaded Spain from North Africa and destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. In October 732, at the Battle of Tours, Charles Martel (the Hammer), marshaled a force of Franks and Burgundians who defeated an invading army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by 'Abdul Rahman, the Goveneror-Gernal of Al-Andalus (Spain), and saved what later became France from becoming a Muslim principality. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans who desecrated St. Sophia's desecrated and converted it into a mosque. And Muslim armies continued to besiege Eastern Europe well into the 17th century.

     Gradually, as the fear of Islam retreated from Western Europe, a triumphant Catholic Church consolidated its religious and political power throughout vast expanses of the region. Thousands upon thousands of  those who were deemed to be heretics, apostates, Jews, or other enemies of the Church were brutally suppressed  by the Holy Office - the Inquisition. Torture, dismemberment and auto de fes became the preferred methods to enforce orthodoxy. Hussites, Albigensians, Jews and other heretics and non-believers lived in constant fear of exposure and persecution.

     As the fear of further invasions by Christian armies receded, Islamic rule in the Middle East was also consolidated. Under the rule of the Ottomans, non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis) were allowed to practice their religion, subject to certain restrictions; were granted some measure of autonomy within their own communities; and their personal safety and property were guaranteed, in return for paying a tax and acknowledging Muslim supremacy. While he conceded their inferior status, Bernard Lewis in his book, The Jews of Islam, observed that, in most respects, the position of non-Muslims was "was very much easier than that of non-Christians or even of heretical Christians in medieval Europe."As Lewis notes, dhimmis rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and with certain exceptions, they were free in their choice of residence and profession.

     Today, the relative positions of believers and non-believers alike in Western society and in the Muslim world have largely been reversed. How did this happen? In the Western world, the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing wars between Catholics and Protestants persuaded an exhausted population and their leaders that toleration of one another's religious beliefs was the only viable way to avoid incessant warfare, death and despoliation. The Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648, ended the Thirty Years' War. Most importantly, the treaties allowed the rulers of the signatory states to independently decide their religious preference. Protestants and Catholics were declared to be equal before the law, and Calvinism was accorded legal recognition.

     Slowly, as a result of these treaties, the concept of toleration took root in the Western world. From this root, as democratic societies blossomed, nurtured by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the ideas of personal autonomy and freedom became central. As a consequence, by the later part of the 19th century, an important set of distinctions had been drawn between the realm of the church and its responsibilities, and the proper role of elected governments toward their citizens.

     In the Middle East, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the existence of autocratic governments, pervasive economic backwardness, illiteracy and intense anger spawned by the emergence of the State of Israel- exacerbated by its mistreatment of its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian population - have created an unstable region in which the concept of tolerance has all but disappeared. With the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, during the past seventy years the Middle East has become virtually depopulated of Catholic, Orthodox and Nestorian Christians, while the few who remain endure constant discrimination and persecution. Sadly, the Middle East - which was the birthplace of Christianity - has become hostile to the adherents of a major religion whose presence there predated Islam by more than six centuries.

     Today in the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by fanatics, poses a threat to the Western democracies and to the entire world. The current wave of demonstrations against the movie trailer allegedly created by an Egyptian-born Copt who is now an American citizen is the latest manifestation of what can only be described as a collective psychosis in which all principles of proportionality and rationality have been lost. While many uninformed Muslims demand the execution of the Copt who satirized their prophet, they remain unfazed by the recent burning of bibles by Muslim mullahs in Cairo, and oblivious to the constant pogroms throughout the Muslim world against non-believing innocents who bear no ill-will toward their religion. This sad spectacle, compounded by an educated Muslim elite who have been cowed into silence, reminds us of the words of Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

     A series of articles in the Economist ("Islam and democracy: Uneasy companions," August 6, 2011) quotes a Lebanese woman, who is described as a sophisticated Sunni Muslim in her 50s, who could easily navigate from English, to French and to Arabic. "Of course, they say nice things these days,"They know who they're talking to. But you cannot trust them--absolutely not." As the magazine reported, "Again and again, in secular and liberal circles in Beirut, Cairo, Rabat, Tunis and even Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, you hear almost identical
dark warnings against the Islamist movements that are gaining ground across the Arab world as dictators are toppled, tackled or forced into concessions."
     
     As a religion, Islam asserts an exclusive claim to the Truth. That Truth is derived entirely from the Qur'an - which is accepted as the unmediated word of the living God. The religion's teachings are supplemented by the Hadith, the commentaries that recount statements and deeds attributed to Mohammed.

     Hence, Islam does not present a challenge to the Western world as a political philosophy. Rather it represents a challenge posed by a set of religious dogmas that have been hijacked by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists who insist upon interpreting the Qur'an as a rigid and unforgiving set of religious dogmas. Their fanaticism has widened the chasm that separates Western secular democracies from much of the Muslim world, imposed insuperable obstacles that impede the development of civil societies and their institutions, and constrained critical economic development. Their demand that truly observant Muslims must focus upon the next life rather than the present condemns millions of Muslims to lives of penury and misery, and left many with only rage and a false sense of victimization to sustain them.

     The insistence by some Islamic imams of their right to impose Shar'ia upon believers and non-believers, coupled with the appallingly subordinate status to which so many women in the Muslim world are subjected, are inimical to the core values of the European Enlightenment. Those within the Western democratic political traditions, whether conservative, liberal or socialist, will continue to criticize Islamic practices so long as apologists refuse to condemn an extremism that refuses to distinguish between the province of God and the province of man, denigrates the rights of women and non-believers, and eschews the quest for social justice here on earth in deference to some future, heavenly reward.

     Absent the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation or the Thirty Years War followed by an edict of toleration such as that expressed in the Peace of Westphalia, the Islamic world is unlikely to embrace the idea of toleration, as a central social concept, anytime soon. Until Islamic leaders endorse that concept unequivocally and acknowledge the importance of other Western notions, admittedly more often preached than observed in practice, - i.e - that social change can be sought and achieved through political discussion, by the emergence of new ideas, and by the evolution of policies - the chasm between the West and Islam will remain wide and deep.

     In the short term, infinite patience is the best response, along with a firm commitment by Western polities to promote and to provide extensive financial support for the education of Muslim women. Only when women have become an educated force throughout the Middle East will the forces of religious fanaticism be stilled.

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The Lessons of 9/11

       Yesterday, we commemorated the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Tearful observances were held at Ground Zero in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07:  A worker looks u...

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: A worker looks up at beams of the Tribute in Lights ahead of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on September 7, 2011 in New York City. The Tribute in Light is comprised of 88 7000 watt searchlights that beam into the sky near the site of the World Trade Center in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

   The solemn occasion, however, did not deter GOP from its calculated campaign to persuade the American electorate that President Obama is not to be trusted.

    On Monday, a right-wing funded think tank, the Government Accountability Institute, issued a report that contended that President Obama attends fewer than half of his daily intelligence briefings. Former Vice President Dick Cheney cited the report to criticize the President."If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden," Cheney said in a statement to the Daily Caller. "Those who deserve the credit are the men and women in our military and intelligence communities who worked for many years to track him down. They are the ones who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation."

    On "Fox and Friends," Senator John McCain asserted, contrary to all of the existing evidence that, "As far as the Middle East is concerned, this president's national security policy has been an abysmal failure."

      Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the remembrance to find fault with President Obama's unwillingness to join with Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud Party in a jihad against Iran's nuclear program."They are the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. If they have nuclear weapons, the next time there is an attack it could be with nuclear weapons," he said on the same show. "There has to be a sense of urgency about stopping them instead of this almost irrational desire to negotiate with them. They have to be afraid of us if we're going to stop them. I'm not certain that's the case right now."

     By contrast, Kurt Eichenwald offered a sober riposte to the GOP's braggadocio. In an op ed column in the New York Times yesterday, entitled "The Deafness Before The Storm," Eichenwald reminded readers of the Bush administration's refusal to act in the summer of 2001 upon the advice of the CIA, which issued a number of warnings about an imminent terrorist attack. Eichenwald wrote, " But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power in the Pentagon were warning that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat."

    History now records, in graphic detail, the consequences of that failure to set aside their ideological blinkers and the refusal of the neo-cons to view the world as it is. Because of their triumph over foreign policy, the U.S. became involved in two wars that led to the deaths and injuries of thousands of our soldiers, with an untold number of dead and the pervasive misery suffered by hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here at home the costs to the U.S. tax-payers from these ill-conceived wars, including the long-term care and treatment of our wounded veterans, may ultimately exceed $6 trillion dollars.  

    But what are there other lessons to be learned from 9/11? One is to be very weary. The very same neo-cons who advised the Bush Administration - including Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton - have become top advisors to Mitt Romney. They, along with Cheney, Giuliani and Romney - all of whom successfully evaded military serve during the Vietnam War - now stridently beat the drums of war on behalf of a tone-deaf, right-wing Israeli lobby that would involve this country in another misbegotten war of foreign adventure that could potentially explode the entire Middle East.

    A second lesson to be learned is that neither the GOP nor any other political group should ever be permitted again to use fear as an instrument of national policy, as the Bush administration so successfully did. Fear eclipses reason and, a Franklin Roosevelt sagely noted, prevents us as a people from tackling urgent problems with real-world solutions.                    
     A third and equally important lesson to be learned is that lies, slogans and cant can never be relied upon as a substitute for a serious discussion of policy differences. The GOP and its supporters continue to insist that government is not a solution, and that the public sector does not create jobs that provide important or meaningful services. Yet 125 of the people who died  at the Pentagon on 9/11 were public employees; 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers, 37 Port Authority Police Department officers,15 EMTs and 3 court officers died responding to the attacks on the Twin Towers. Another 2,000 first responders were also injured in the attacks. They offered their lives heroically, without hesitation and never insisted, aside from being paid a fair wage, that their lives were indispensable or that, because of the vagaries of tax policy or a failure to be paid extravagant bonuses,they were unwilling to sacrifice their lives in an effort to  help others.
            
     The events of 9/11 should serve as a stark and perpetual reminder of the responsibility of the Bush administration and the GOP for this national tragedy. Those who continue to enable them should also should also be publicly repudiated for their continuing, irresponsible efforts to distract voters from the need to focus upon the real problems that have reduced millions of our fellow citizens to lives of penury in a Dawinian war that GOP has unleashed against the rest of us on behalf of its wealthy elite.

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Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and Paul Ryan?

      Until recently, Congressman Paul Ryan repeatedly expressed his admiration and enthusiasm for the writings of Ayn Rand and he is reliably reported to have required that all of his Congressional staff to read Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct.

Paul_Ryan_Political_Cartoon_2012
    Now that he is the presumptive GOP Vice Presidential candidate, however, Ryan has discovered the need to counter the public perceptions that he is an uncaring disciple of the gospel of selfishness. For that reason, Ryan has begun to insist that his worldview is largely inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas:"If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."
    
      But is Ryan being truthful? Is Ryan, in fact, a Catholic conservative?
 
     The kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is at loggerheads with the Catholic social thought. That tradition, which traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current GOP political discourse. In stark contrast to Catholic social teaching, that discourse draws its values from the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and was trumpeted by Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. Because  Locke's political legacy inspired the Founding Fathers, was encoded into the constitutional  machinery of the United States, and has become embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience along before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable.

     In contrast to Congressman Ryan's embrace of an ideology based upon radical individualism, Thomas Aquinas argued that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum  - the common good - which is synonymous with  justice. 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 also 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."

     To the present, in addition, 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.

     Hence, while Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, Ryan and his right-wing antisocial individualists confidently assert that society is an abstraction and that only the individual is real. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who was steeped in the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is an abstraction and he rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which 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 and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. Which, then, is the abstraction: the individual or the society?

    If man is a reasoning being, Unamuno notes that this ability to reason, alone, is incontrovertible evidence that the individual is a social being: "But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of society. There is  a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society, springs reason." Further,  "Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product."

     Unlike Locke who argued - as Paul Ryan has agreed - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that government is an artificial construct created solely by contract, conservatives contend that political societies, as historical entities, are the only operative reality: Political societies exist over the course of history, whereas individuals, as mere mortals, suffer abbreviated life spans.

     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 liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations. Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, 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."

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, since 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. For that reason 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 also, 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.

    Aquinas' skepticism about the importance of accumulating material possessions has never been shared by Congressman Ryan. Rather, Ryan, as a radical individualist, would agree with John Locke that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."               

     Part of the confusion over whether Ryan's politics reflect consistent Catholic social teaching is directly attributable to the confusion and timidity of the current U.S. Bishops. Obsessed with matters sexual and reproductive, blind to enormous scandal in their own midst, and chosen primarily because of their obsequious, unquestioning loyalty to an increasingly rigid and doctrinaire pontiff, many U.S. Bishops have chosen to mute their fidelity and responsibility to teach and affirm historic Catholic teaching. Instead, they have entered into a Faustian bargain not to offend the GOP politicians like Ryan who agree with them solely on issues of contraception and reproductive rights. Although Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, decried Ryan's proposed  budget cuts this past spring for having failed the moral test of fairness, Cardinal Dolan of New York, sadly, continues to express his admiration for the Congressman and to praise Ryan's commitment to Catholic values.

    In contrast to Catholic social teaching, 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 self-interests. He would also undoubtedly disagree with Thomas Hill Green, the father of  "modern liberalism" who, after he witnessed  the pervasive human misery spawned by the Industrial Revolution, disavowed laissez-faire and concluded that government should be used as a positive instrument for the public good.

    Faced with a similar specter of poverty and economic inequality today, Congressman Ryan remains utterly oblivious to the suffering all around him. How can this insensitivity and indifference, Cardinal Dolan and other apologists notwithstanding, be reconciled with the message of the gospels and the social thought of Thomas Aquinas?

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