Sunday, August 29, 2010

Christians can be brutal too

Christians can be brutal too

Last weekend’s impassioned protest against plans to build an Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero included a group of people afraid of what they call the “Islamisation of America.” The signs they carried had just one word on it: “Sharia.” They fear that core of American institutions such as our legal system, will be replaced by Islamic law, sharia.

We, in the West, know of sharia only that it sanctions the stoning to death of women caught in adultery and other equally brutal treatments of women. Many Americans consider these brutalities typical of what they see in Islam, a religion of violence and terror.

Alas, that is a very one-sided view. Christians are equally capable of great brutality.

Here is one example:

The Ugandan government recently proposed an anti-homosexuality law which imposes a life sentence on any single homosexual act and the death penalty on three or more acts. Anyone witnessing but not reporting a homosexual act within 24 hours is liable to three years in prison.

This proposed law has widespread support in Uganda, especially among the evangelical Christian communities. What is more, it has been given open support by some American evangelicals who went to Uganda and held workshops on the evils of homosexuality. Some of the Ugandan sponsors of this legislation are closely connected to the well-known US evangelical leader Rick Warren (who has since distanced himself from this proposed law). Various  reports in the US link the Ugandan author of this legislation to an American evangelical group that calls itself “The Family” or “The Fellowship.” This is not a well-known organization but some of its members are powerful, right-wing legislators such as Bart Stupak who delayed passage of Obama’s health reform by insisting that the government not finance abortions for poor women.

There can be little doubt that fanatical Christians in this country are behind the brutal anti-gay legislation proposed in Uganda. In earlier days, Christians burned accused witches at the stake. Today they cheer on the Ugandan government that proposes to execute homosexuals.

No religion has a monopoly on fanaticism and brutality.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pity the Poor Teachers !

Pity the Poor Teachers

Pundits and Politicians, community leaders and parents do not tire of talking about the “crisis in education.” Various statistics are show how poorly American schools do in comparison to schools abroad.
In a world where people are sensible, they would go and ask the teachers about their thinking about the problems in our schools. But not so in the m US. Instead the government either makes up stuff out of whole cloth or they talk to so-called ”experts” who produce the perfect solution to all our education problems. When one of those simple solutions does not work, the experts produce another one, and another one, and so on . . .
Not too long ago Pres.Obama had the perfect and perfectly simple solution: pay the good teachers more. Provide a monetary incentive to teachers to make them strive harder for excellence. Not only was this suggestion really insulting to teachers who work hard, year in, year out whether they get paid well or not, but it is plainly foolish. Would the President work harder if we paid him more? Does the person who sells me stamps at the Post office give mean  extra smile because the Post-Office pays here extra for every smile? Perhaps she is just a nice person who wants to do a good job.

The next “solution” the education experts dreamt up was to fire teachers in poorly performing schools and to remove the principals. Once again the experts decided to blame the teachers and that’s that.

Both of these solutions are convenient because it takes attention from the citizens who refuse to pay taxes to support the schools, the government who blows trillions of dollars in wars and military hardware, and the experts who are too lazy to acknowledge that education is a difficult and challenging field and that any simple “solution” is bound to be a failure.

Well, at last someone is showing that it is not all the teachers’ fault. Studies have shown that children learn less or very little if they switch schools frequently. The children of the poor are moved around because their parents being unable to pay rent in one place move somewhere else, or because their work life is full of uncertainty they move a lot. Whatever the reasons--no doubt different in different cases--if parents move a lot their children will not do well in school. Schools where more than twenty percent of the students come and go in any given years, are most likely to “underperform” on the standard tests.

It is not all the teachers’ fault.

What will the experts come up to “solve” the problem of instability? How about assuring every family a decent roof over their head? How about aiming at full employment? How about guaranteeing everyone a wage that will allow them a decent standard of living without working three jobs?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blame Capitalism, not the Capitalists

  Blame Capitalism, not the Capitalists.
Our economy is in the doldrums. Unemployment is very high--if you count the underemployed, 20% of the work force are working less than they would like. The unemployed have no money to spend. Those who are still working spend cautiously. But consumer spending is the engine of growth in our economy. As long as consumers do not spend, employers will not hire new workers and unemployment will remain high. As long as unemployment remains high, consumer demand will be weak.
We face a tough Catch-22.
The matter is, actually even more serious than that: many businesses have become very “lean.” That means that when business was really bad, in 2007, they laid off a lot of workers. When business recovered a bit they bought new and bigger machines. So now they can produce more with fewer workers. The jobs that many people lost have gone for good.
Some of these lean companies are making lots of money. There a big profits in the financial sector, in the banks, as well as in manufacturing. The auto companies are making a profit; so does Alcoa, for instance. Why don’t these companies hire more workers? Is that not what they owe us, the American public, after we lent them huge sums of money to bail them out?
This question, raised by various commentators misrepresents our economic system. It suggests that the present crisis is not a crisis of the economic system but the fault of some bad people in positions of economic leadership. But that is no more than propaganda to confuse the ordinary citizen.
Suppose you own a business. The government helped you over a bad patch in the economy and now you are doing ok again. Your line of business is thriving and your competitors are also doing well but there exists serious competition. Now someone tells you that you owe it to all of us to hire more people. But that’s not what the competition is doing; they bought some new machines that do the job of several workers faster and more cheaply. They have a higher margin of profit as a consequence. What you really need to do is buy some of those marvelous machines yourself. If instead, you hire more workers, your costs of production will rise, your margin of profit will go down and so will your business the next time the economy slows down.
Telling businesses that are doing well that they should hire more workers as a public-spirited gesture forgets that ours is a competitive system. Whatever you do in your business, you need to keep looking over your shoulder at the competitors to see whether they produce more cheaply than you and whether they make more money. Giving jobs to the unemployed may get you a lot of credit in the hereafter, but in this world it may lead you into bankruptcy.
This shows up a feature of our economic system that over and over again leads us into trouble. Every business is privately owned and each owner must make decisions that will provide an advantage over the competition. In the present case, they may have to buy bigger and better machines and lay off employees, instead of giving jobs to the unemployed.
That’s a good policy for the individual business--large or small. But if everyone does it it leads into precisely the impasse we face now: where business is sluggish because many people have no money to spend. Because business is sluggish there is serious unemployment, therefore many people are forced to cut down on their purchases and business remains sluggish and unemployment persists.
The problem is not with the individual capitalist, but with the economic system resting on individual ownership and competition between those owners. It is the economic system that is in crisis once again.
Unless we manage to change that economic system, we will continue to lumber from crisis to crisis.

Friday, August 13, 2010


No,  that does not stand for what you think it stands for. The Old Party--do you remember when they called it the party of Abraham Lincoln?-- is no longer Grand. It now stands for Greed, Obstruction, and Panic.
Nothing more needs to be said about greed. As for obstruction, Senate Republicans in the Congress have been acting as if they were two-year-olds whose only word is “No!”
As for panic, it is clear that a political decision has been made to appeal to everyone in the United States who is frigthened. What is more the decision includes telling lies or far-fetched stories in order to raise the level of general fear.
All this began after 9/11 when George Bush and Dick Cheney started talking about terrorism in a way that suggested that we’d better check under our bed for terrorists before going to sleep at night. That morphed into attacks on Obama as being soft on terrorism. Since the surge in Afghanistan we hear a bit less about that, although some people are still trying to use that line of attack. The central lesson drawn from 9/11 was that we need to be frightened. Is that really the most important lesson to learn from that event?
The health care reform bill -- long overdue and not adequate -- was presented as a complete abolition of traditional American liberties. Obama, the Socialist, was going to create an Orwellian 1984 where all of us would be oppressed by government bureaucrats -- Democrats all of them, of course. The government was going to institute “death panels” to decide who among the elderly, was going to live or die. The government was even going to interfere with our Medicare! The health care bill is enormously complex; there are many aspects about which one may well disagree. But the conservatives do not present arguments. They use scare tactics.
In Arizona, one of the reasons for supporting the racist anti-immigrant law was that the illegal immigrants in Arizona were mostly criminals and had raised the crime rate in the state. (A similar claim has surfaced more recently in Virginia.) It turns out that the opposite is true. The crime rate has been declining in Arizona. Once again the complex problem of immigration has been sidestepped and replaced by ‘crying wolf’ really loud.
Now comes the scare about building a Muslim community center, complete with gym, cafeteria, and meeting rooms and a place for worship, near the site of the World Trade Center. Many reasons have been given for the hysteria about this plan. But one of them is, predictably, that this plan for a Muslim community center threatens the personal safety of all people in New York. (Would such a center built in Harlem be less of a threat?) As a reason it is really goofy. But it does seem to be effective in continuing to frighten many American citizens.
An Arizona Republican Congressman is calling for an investigation of a group of pages in Congress whom he suspects of being placed in their jobs in the offices of Congressmen and women by what he calls ” a front group” for the pervasive Muslim conspiracy to subvert our nation and its institutions. We are beginning to see another McCarthyist panic not just about terrorism but about a much more profound overturning of what is best and dearest to us in America. Sen. McCarthy was the Republican Senator from Wisconsin.
Needless to say this whole strategy is a complete abdication of leadership on the part of conservatives. Leaders in a democracy should encourage reasoned debates, rational argument, careful examination of facts. The continuing efforts to raise the level of fear betrays a boundless contempt for ordinary voters. One can only hope that enough voters understand that. But they may very well not. Frightened people have many time before attacked the foreigner, the Other, the immigrant, people professing a different religion, speaking a different language, looking different. They are doing it again encouraged by conservative voices.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Military Might -- and its Limits

Military Might -- and its Limits

We are confronting once again the paradox of being the militarily most powerful nation in the world and being defeated by barefoot fighters with primitive weapons. That happened in Vietnam. It seems to be happening again in Afghanistan. All the bravery of American and NATO troops equipped with an arsenal of incredible technical sophistication seems to be as useless in Afghanistan as it was 40 years ago in Vietnam.

This modern weaponry serves the ancient goal of killing enemies in order to conquer territory. The Spaniards accomplished this when they conquered Mexico. Similarly, at the end of the Mexican American war we took large portions of Mexican territory, from Texas to California, and incorporated it into the United States.

Violence, however, does not always aim at the annexation of territory. Often it serves to control a population through terror. Violence here serves to intimidate people, as did the mob violence in the US during Prohibition, or the secret police, sudden arrests, and killings perpetrated by dictatorial regimes. The violent ones, by instilling fear, can get whatever they want. But in order to maintain that power, violence must continue. When the secret police gets lazy, and the torturers lose interest in their work, the dictator will soon lose power.

Clearly terrorism uses that technique of intimidating populations. According to recent newspaper reports, the US is using terrorist techniques more frequently in Afghanistan. We target the Taliban leadership for assassination and thereby discourage lower level leaders from moving up in the ranks. Instead, fear of the assassination squads or the drone airplanes may move them to sit down at the negotiating table.

But violence and the threat of it may also serve to bring peace and security to a population. Our own police are armed and occasionally use their weapons to keep the peace. The local policeman on the block who unsnarls traffic jams or accompanies school children across the street is not the enemy. If we see what looks like a burglar entering a neighbor’s house, we call the police. When there is a traffic accident or an assault, we call the police. In functioning societies, police violence is narrowly focused on a small class of deviants. Most citizens have nothing more serious to fear from the police than the occasional parking or speeding ticket. The police--the purveyors of violence--are allied with the vast majority of citizens in order to keep those in check who would disrupt civil peace. Most citizens are safe from police violence because citizens and police are allied.

The power of the police does not come from their sophisticated armaments but because the citizens trust them not to use their violence against the innocent and to keep the level of violence very low. Cases of police brutality do serious damage because they threaten the support of police by ordinary citizens.

What is our mission in Afghanistan? We do not want to annex the land of the Afghans. We do not want to dominate their population for years to come by maintaining a regime of military terror. Instead we want to pacify Afghanistan so that their own military and police can keep the peace and we can return home. As President Obama formulated our goal “Don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity,’’

We want to play the same role in Afghanistan that the police plays in a tough urban neighborhood at home. But that works only if we make friends with the population. Back in the US the cop on the beat speaks English. He may have grown up in the neighborhood, he may have gone to school with some of us, or with some of our relatives. He lives the same life we lead. He is one of us--except for the gun on his hip and the shield on his uniform. He can be our friend, more or less, as long as he uses his gun sparingly, if ever.

But in Afghanistan we are strangers from far away. We are heavily armed and we use our weapons daily. As foreigners, who do not know the language, the country or the people, we do not always know whether we target wrong-doers with our violence. Many innocent civilians die. Reports released by WikiLeaks suggest that many more innocent civilians die than we have been told. The Afghan population rightly does not trust us.

What would happen to the alliance between police and citizens in an American city if the police arrived in combat gear, with helicopter gun ships, armored vehicles with powerful weapons, night goggles and all?

The heavy equipment, the armor, the deadly weapons are counterproductive when you want to gain the trust of a population. Our super sophisticated weaponry works against us in Afghanistan. What we would need instead we cannot have--the ability to speak the local languages, personal ties to members of different communities because we have known each other since infancy.

Lacking that, our role in Afghanistan will vacillate between that of the neighborhood cop at home and that of the mob with its protection racket or of the terrorists. You cannot “win the hearts and minds” of the population, as Gen. Petraeus is trying to do, with drones, assassination teams, fighter bombers and other heavy military equipment.

Our mission is bound to fail.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Judaism, Christianity and Capitalism

Judaism, Christianity and Capitalism

A historian has recently reminded us that the early -- 17th century -- Puritans in Massachusetts were seriously opposed to capitalism. For one thing, they disapproved of lending out money with interest. The entire finance and banking business was not allowed in Massachusetts. They also disapproved strenuously of selling goods for, as we say, "what the market will bear." We are used to selling goods at the current market price which depends on demand. If the goods you sell are scarce you can charge more. But according to the Puritans, that was extortion. When you sell as high as possible you take advantage of the needs and urgencies of the buyers. The baker who raises the price of bread in times of famine enriches himself at the expense of his hungry neighbors. When gasoline is in short supply and the oil company raises the price of gasoline for people who need to get to work, it takes advantage of the needs of their customers. So thought the Puritans.

Today, by contrast, our children learn in their introductory college economics class that prices are set by supply and demand. The Puritans were willing to admit that many merchants follow supply and demand to set their prices, but they also were quite unambiguous about their moral condemnation of that practice. But that part is not mentioned in Econ. 101.

The Puritans did not invent these condemnations of lending out money at interest or of charging as high a price as the market will bear. They based themselves on scriptural injunctions in the Old and the New Testament.

Deuteronomy 23:19 forbids lending money (or anything else, such as food) with interest to fellow Israelites, but permits lending with interest to strangers. Similar injunctions can be found elsewqhere in the Old Testament.

The New Testament also has much to say about economics. Perhaps the most famous is Matthew 19: 21-24: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. . . . it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Many people believe today that they have no ethical obligation to their fellow humans; all they need to do is to make as much money as possible. But the traditional Jewish and Christian thinking about the economy rests on the injunction to take care of others who are in need. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

This is what it says in Leviticus: “If your brother, who is living with you, falls on evil days and is unable to support himself with you, you must support him as you would a stranger or a guest, and he must continue to live with you. Do not make him work for you, do not take interest from him; fear your God, and let your brother live with you. You are not to lend him money at interest or give him food to make a profit out of it.” (Lev. 25:35-3 7).

That seems pretty unambiguous. Islam and Hinduism contain similar proscriptions against capitalist practices in their scriptures. Some evangelical Christians, notably the “New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good” are vocal in their insistence that we are responsible for saving the natural environment. They are equally insistent that the New Testament demands from us not to take advantage or oppress others. Oppressing others includes taking advantage of their pressing needs by charging them higher prices for goods that are scarce--that is to set prices by supply and demand.

The current economic crisis brings these issues to the fore. We are in this crisis because the money makers have been in charge and have ruined the lives of millions. Those lives remain precarious because the money makers run the government. They are proud that the big banks are making money once again. They regret that many people are still our of work and many people have lost their homes. But they are not prepared to do much about it. Making money is all important. Helping your fellow women and men is strictly secondary.

This is not a question about religion, about being an observant Jew, or a church going Christian, or a practicing Muslim or Hindu. You may want to leave all religion behind you as the superstitions of a less enlightened age. But you must still confront the question:  What sort of  world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where money is more important than anything else, including human lives? Would you rather chose a compassionate world where the poor and suffering  will find someone to take them in?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Breaking the Addiction to Oil

Breaking the Addiction to Oil

While we were all bemoaning the damage done by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, China experienced a major oil spill. According to official figures, 470,000 gallons of oil were spilled. But private estimates set the amount of oil spilled from 40 to 80 times higher. Last week a pipeline ruptured and filled the Kalamazoo River in Michigan with 800,000 gallons of oil.

These continuing oil spills are only one reason for wanting to reduce the use of oil world wide, if not to eliminate it entirely. The use of petroleum is a major contributor to global warming. Well meaning folks therefore are all in favor of wind farms, solar panel installations, electric cars.

But all the solar panels and wind generators in the world will only have a limited effect on oil consumption.

Consider this:

How will we power our airplanes if we do not want to use jet fuel? Are you ready to get on an electric train and an electric (or perhaps atom powered) ocean liner to travel to China or India? Or will you limit your travels in the future? Can we hope for solar airplanes?

Petroleum products do not only power transportation, or factories, or our homes. Roughly one fifth of the world’s petroleum is used in a very wide range of consumer products. A few examples are:

In Industry: Solvents, Dyes, Epoxy, Paint, Yarn, Fertilizers.

In the home: Ink, Floor Wax, Ballpoint Pens, Upholstery, Sweaters,  Nail Polish, Dresses, Tires,  Perfumes, Cassettes, Dishwasher parts, Tool Boxes, Shoe Polish, Caulking, Petroleum Jelly, Transparent Tape, CD Player, Faucet Washers, Antiseptics, Clothesline, Curtains, Food Preservatives, Soap, Vitamin Capsules, Antihistamines, Purses, Shoes, Cortisone,  Deodorant,  Putty, Panty Hose, Refrigerant, Percolators,  Rubbing Alcohol, Linings, Shag Rugs, Electrician's Tape, Tool Racks, Car Battery Cases, Mops, Slacks, Insect Repellent, Umbrellas, Hair Coloring, Roofing, Toilet Seats,  Lipstick, Denture Adhesive, Linoleum, Speakers, Heart valves, Shaving Cream, Toothpaste.

In Sports  Football Cleats,  Boats, Insecticides, Bicycle Tires, Sports Car Bodies,   Fishing lures, Golf Bags, Motorcycle Helmet,  Basketballs, Dashboards, Life Jackets,  Skis, Fishing Rods, Surfboards.

This list is not meant to render us hopeless of ever freeing ourselves from dependence on oil. But it is important to think seriously about how much work is ahead of us to find substitutes for petroleum products.

Our recent experience has underscored that reducing the use of petroleum products is absolutely essential if we are going to preserve at least a portion of this planet. But that job is much more challenging than building windmills and installing solar panels. We need to find non-petroleum sources for a wide range of consumer products or, if that proves impossible, find different ways of living without those products.

Above all we need to be serious about oil independence.