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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.    

How Values Determine Public Policy

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In 2015 former New York Times food critic Mark Bittman wrote a column in which he asked "Why would you buy a processed food that tastes worse than what it was designed to replace, doesn't exist in nature, and helps kill you?" Bittman reminded readers that the Food and Drug Administration, an agency of the executive branch of the government, had finally decided to ban food containing trans fats, but only years after overwhelming evidence and litigation made the dangers of those substances clear beyond peradventure. He further noted that "partially hydrogenated oils have benefited no one except their manufacturers and the producers of the junk that includes them" but he lamented that "the three-year phase out means more deaths from people consuming a substance that should have been taken off the market at least a decade ago."

            "Why wait three years?" Bittman asked, "Why not get these heart-stopping products off the shelves now, as we do when food is contaminated with E. coli? If the evidence is that trans fats are more harmful than other fats, and other fats exist, why delay? Protecting Big Food's profits is the only possible answer."

In a prior column, Mark Bittman presciently identified the source of the problems that afflict our political system: our values. As Bittman observed, "It's clear to most everyone, regardless of politics, that the big issues -- labor, race, food, immigration, education and so on -- must be "fixed," and that fixing any one of these will help with the others. But this kind of change must begin with an agreement about principles, specifically principles of human rights and well-being rather than principles of making a favorable business climate....Shouldn't adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn't everyone owed a society that orks toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn't we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?"  

Bittman went on to observe that, "Defining goals that matter to people is critical, because the most powerful way to change a complex, soft system is to change its purpose. For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose. More generally, if we agreed that human well-being was a priority, creating more jobs would not ring so hollow. .... Increasingly, it's corporations and not governments that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas corporations will always act in their own interests."  

Bittman concluded that "more than minor tweaks are needed to improve life for most people...The big ideas are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now and the future is a major challenge, and we - progressives and our allies -have to work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us."  

  Bittman is right. In large part, the values that we hold - our worldviews - determine the politicians we endorse, and the public policies that we support or oppose. Unlike religious dogmas, however, political philosophies are neither true nor false per se. Rather, political philosophies reflect the values that govern our public discourse and define our views about the proper role of government, including its responsibility to address economic issues and social needs. 

Our political philosophies also help us to define our understanding of ourselves as political beings. As the expression and embodiment of our social and moral values, they epitomize who we think we are and what we think we can or cannot achieve as citizens through participation in the political process. As Michael Gerson has observed. "Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence  the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self restraint." A political philosophy inevitably suggests specific programs and policies. For that reason, the political, economic and ethical effects of the policies and programs that are enacted based upon that philosophy can be measured, scrutinized and evaluated. Once implemented as public policy, over time, they enable us to see whether the effects are beneficial or inimical to the health and vitality of civil society as well as who benefits and who loses.

  Equally important, as Bittman suggests, ignoring the problem of root values inevitably leads to unproductive and frustrating political discussions. Whether, for example, one believes that access to quality publicly-funded health care is a human right, as opposed to a commodity that should be sold by private insurers and purchased in the marketplace, will prompt the proponents of these two diametrically opposed perspectives to endorse entirely different public policy proposals. Unless the underlying root value can be identified and challenged through rational discussion, it will remain impossible to effectively address the issue of health care reform.  

Similarly with foreign trade, the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively, and the issue of climate change, a belief that the values of the marketplace - the desire to maximize profits - should control, will lead to one set of policy proposals that endorses a minimalist view of government. On the other hand, those who believe that the public interest should control will advocate specific policies to protect workers and to ensure safety and protect against environmental degradation through rigorous public regulations. In addition, values that we not do share or which are absent from our worldviews and political vocabulary also help to define us; they rule out  a universe of other possibilities that remain unknown or alien to us; and they constrain our ability to imagine other alternatives. 

Conversely, the absence of specific policies and proposals that are designed to address specific public needs help to unmask pious rhetoric as little more than cant or hypocrisy. This last observation is useful when the discussion turns to a discussion of this country's well-documented and exponentially increasing economic and political inequality. Although Americans of every persuasion claim to profess as a bedrock principle, a commitment to some kind of equal opportunity or equality of opportunity, there has been little serious public debate about how we can give substance to our ideals.   

  The question of values becomes one of singular significance in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president of the United States. A few weeks before his election, Trump   proclaimed, "We are cutting the regulations at a tremendous clip. I would say 70 percent of regulations can go." One week later, he went one step further, suggesting perhaps 80 percent of existing government regulations could be eliminated during his administration. Left unsaid by President Trump is an acknowledgment that regulations are the vehicles through which government protects all of us, including the most vulnerable, from predatory and unscrupulous business practices, ensures public safety and protects against health and environmental hazards. 

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.

Prayers Will Never Be The Answer

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photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Lott's self-serving critique of gun registration laws in Tuesday's New York Times [ "Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence"] needs to be juxtaposed to yesterday's episode of gun violence in the Parkland, Florida high school. Why should it matter if a few people are inconvenienced by gun registration laws or if their identities are confused with others when balanced against the human toll caused by gun violence? Why should mentally-challenged, violence prone or ill-equipped persons, who are neither part of the military or the police, be given an unfettered right to own and carry guns of every conceivable type and caliber? Isn't the first duty of the government to ensure the safety and protection of its citizens? Why should the possession of these instruments of destruction be elevated to an alleged constitutional right?


Every other Western democracy that has confronted these very questions have arrived at better, safer answers: Restrict guns, require registration, comprehensive background checks, continuing education, and require that all licensed weapons be securely locked in sealed containers.

Professional police forces were created in this country because citizens correctly concluded that they did not want to b e subject to subject to vigilante violence. Given that history, why are the police associations and chiefs of police reluctant to take on the gun lobby even through they, too, are often the victims of gun violence?

Prayers are not the answer to gun violence; legislation is. It is time for every American concerned about this country's endless orgy of gun violence to demand action and to punish every legislator who panders to the NRA. A country that embraces a culture of gun ownership, given the attendant violence it spawns, and elevates it to a constitutional principle is one that is on the verge of implosion. Requiscat in pace, Antonin Scalia.


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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Will Austerity Hasten Revolution?

  Today's edition of The New York Times chronicles the turmoil and misery that has been precipitated by continuing turmoil in the market economies of the Western world and by the austerity measures that have been introduced in response to that turmoil.

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                              Louis XV

     In a front page article, "Spain Recoils as its Hungry Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal," Suzanne Daly describes the increasingly desperate efforts of the Spanish government to meet the budget targets imposed by E.U. regulators. She observes that, despite having introduced one austerity measure after another,  including cutting public sector jobs, salaries, pensions and other benefits, the economy has continued to implode.

     Ms. Daly cites a report by a Catholic charity, Caritas, that states it fed almost one million Spaniards in 2010, a figure that had doubled since 2007, and that in 2011 the number rose again by an additional 65,000 persons. Caritas also stated that 22% of Spanish households were now in poverty and that approximately 600,000 Spaniards had no income whatsoever. 

      Daly also reports that, with an unemployment rate of over 50% among young people and increasing numbers of households where the adults have no jobs, many Spaniards are now forced to forage in tash bins for their food. She quotes an official in the town of Girona, Eduardo Berloso, who complained that "It's against the dignity of these people to have to look for food in this manner." In response, Mr. Berloso sponsored an ordinance that required supermarkets in that town to padlock their trash bins.      
 
     Here in the United States, similarly ill-advised demands for austerity have prompted severe cutbacks at the federal, state and local levels that have prolonged and exacerbated the Great Recession, destroyed the  lives of millions of Americans and widened economic inequality. Joe Nocera, in his column today, "Romney and the Forbes 400," noted that "Thirty years ago, when Forbes published its first Forbes 400, a net worth of $75 million would get you on that list. Today, it takes $1.1 billion. In the last year alone, the cumulative net worth of the wealthiest 400 people, by Forbes calculation, rose by $200 billion. That compares with a 4 percent drop in median household income last year, according to the Census Bureau."
 
     Last year, Forbes magazine reported that, as of November, 2011, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from $1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined wealth was thus approximately equivalent to the GDP of Canada.

     In October of last year, the Internal Revenue Service and the Congressional Budget Office released findings which showed that the top 1% of the American population continued to receive a disproportionate share of the country's wealth. In 2009, the 1.4 million who belong to the top 1% made an average of $1 million dollars in 2009. Further, since 1979, the share of U.S. Income enjoyed by the top 1% has increased from 9.18% to 17.9% as of 2009, or more than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.

     The U.S. Census Bureau announced in 2011 that the real median household income in the United States had declined to $49,995, or 2.3% from 2009 , while the nation's poverty rate had increased to 43.569 million people, or 15.1 % of the total population, and the number of people without health care insurance had grown to 49.9 million.

    A study by Harvard University Medical School in 2009 attributed that the lack of medical insurance to about 45,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Further, researchers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 reported that 17.2 million households - or 14.5 % of all households in the United States - were "food insecure" and that in one-third of those households "normal eating patterns were disrupted." In 3.9 million of those households, children went hungry.

     As the real unemployment rate climbed to approximately 20 million Americans in 2011, another 2.6 million Americans, according to the Census Bureau, descended into poverty. Almost simultaneously, the World Bank observed that the United States had a higher level of income inequality than Canada, South Korean or any country in Europe with exception Turkey.

     A study by the Central Intelligence Agency reports that the U.S. ranks 50 out of 221 countries surveyed for life expectancy. The average life expectancy of 78.37 years places the U.S. below all Western European countries and is only slightly higher than Cyprus, Panama and Costa Rica.

     Finally, research by a Boston-based consultancy group, Forrester, estimated that 400,000 service jobs had been lost to off-shoring since 2000 and that this trend had then accelerated to between 20,000 and 40,000 a month. The number of jobs lost was over and above the 2 million manufacturing jobs that were estimated to have moved offshore since 1983.  By 2015, Forrester predicted,  approximately 3.3 million service jobs will have moved offshore, including 1.7 million "back office" jobs such as payroll processing and accounting, and 473,000 jobs in the information and technology industry.

     All of the empirical evidence suggests that out-sourcing, deregulation and a commitment to the myth of "free-trade" have been major contributing factors to the loss of manufacturing, stagnating wages and the growing impoverishment of the former middle class.

     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 service contracts. Without the intervention of the government into market economies, the buyers and sellers of goods and services become locked in mutually destructive death throes.

     The model of the market economy, because of these practices, is no longer responsive to the liberal democratic political systems that were responsible for creating and nurturing capitalism and has been an unmitigated disaster for middle class families throughout the Western world.

     Left to their own devices, entrepreneurs and corporations inevitably engage in practices that have harmful consequences to the public, notwithstanding the fact that their activities are heavily subsidized by taxpayer money - e.g. roads, trains, airports, and intangible infrastructure such as employee training and R&D, favorable tax policies, legal standing, and the protection of trade secrets and intellectual property. Entrepreneurs and corporations know that if they are unable to escape the ultimate consequences of their poor decisions, if all else fails, they can always enter into bankruptcy and re-emerge as a new corporate persona. Their sole goal is to maximize profits to please their shareholders. Given a mind set that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, they remain oblivious to the adverse effects of poverty, lack of health care, pollution, climate change and to basic principles of social justice.

     There are no easy solutions to the present economic malaise, but the purported "laws of economics" are not to be confused with the laws of physics. Economic systems do not operate in a vacuum and there is nothing inevitable about the operation of economic trends. Economic systems and political systems are the products of human imagination and ideology as they are shaped by historical forces.

     Economic theory itself is the step-child of political theory. Capitalism as an economic system emerged only slowly as result of the disintegration of the feudal, agrarian economic system and the development of trade and banking in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The development and justification for market capitalism as a model was provided by the political ideas of John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. 

     Because there is nothing inevitable about economic trends and developments, they can be countered by intelligent and carefully crafted monetary and fiscal policies, and intelligent legislation. In extremis, even the "laws of economics" - as articulated by the proponents of classical, orthodox liberal economic theory - can be suspended by operation of law, as was required during World Wars I and II.

     The critical need is to restore the proper balance between the pursuit of wealth as a purely private activity and the public interest. In a democracy, citizens have the ability and the right to imagine and to create new political, economic and social structures and arrangements that are rooted in a shared commitment to social justice and in a recognition of the mutual obligations that we owe to one another as members of a political community. By law, policies can designed and imposed to protect the rights of workers to join unions, to create an industrial policy, to re-impose selective tariffs (as the Chinese now do), to enact a tax code that punishes out-sourcing and domestic dis-investment and to provide incentives for job-creation and domestic re-investment.

     The newly released documentary film Detropia graphically illustrates the price that this country and the children of the middle class are now paying because we have permitted, in the name of free enterprise, our manufacturing base to be dismantled, unions to be crushed, and jobs to be out-sourced in return for an unrestrained flood of cheap, often subsidized imported goods and products. As a consequence, we have allowed ourselves to become a virtual colony of China and other exported-driven countries.

     In that movie, George McGregor, an official from the United Auto Workers, desperately tries to protect his members from extreme pay cuts demanded by companies such as American Axle. Its management, before it moved all of its manufacturing jobs to Mexico, informed McGregor in negotiations that it didn't care whether or not his UAW members enjoyed a living-wage. 

     Tommy Stephens, a bar owner and former teacher who is the film's most notable person, laments the demise of the middle class Detroit in which he grew up. He ruminates about the loss of hope and opportunity as the middle class descends into poverty. At the end, he observes that the middle class has played an indispensable role in the development of capitalism: it has served as a buffer that protected the wealthy elite and their possessions from the vengeance of the poor. Without that buffer of hope and opportunity, Stephens predicts that people will be left with no other option but to revolt. 

      It has been said that Marx's predictions about the inevitability of revolution were wrong because he did not anticipate the emergence and expansion of the middle class. But Marx understood, better than many of his critics, that the model of market capitalism that he challenged - based upon Social Darwinism and laissez-faire - could not survive. Now those ugly doctrines have been recycled and become, for many of the current elite, the controlling model for how market economies should function, Marx may yet be proven right.  

    As the middle class has now been beaten down and forced into retreat by the 1%, one wonders whether that elite is now too deaf to heed the warning attributed to King Loius XV, Après moi, le déluge.   
  

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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. 


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     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.

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    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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