Archive for September, 2011

Rednecks

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Each of the last two Republican debates yielded an interesting moment in which the audience appears to be more conservative than the candidates on the stage.

In the first instance, Rick Perry was applauded for his vigorous support of the death penalty in Texas.

In the second, an audience member shouted, “Let him die”, when Ron Paul was asked what the fate should be for someone who chose to be uninsured and then fell ill with a life threatening condition.

Finally, in the most recent debate, the panel was asked by a gay soldier what their plan was regarding gays serving openly in the military.  The audience booed the questioner.

So let’s go through these one by one.

Texas executes more inmates than any other state in the union.  Studies have shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime.  It is more expensive to administer than life imprisonment.  It is racially biased.  There is a large book of evidence which suggests that it results in the death of innocent people.  In Texas not only are the innocent executed, but also the mentally incompetent and those who aren’t old enough to have fully formed concepts of right and wrong.  We remain the only industrialized country world with a death penalty.  At the same time we self-righteously condemn Muslim countries for similar practices and cluck our tongues at sharia law.  Finally, as a Christian nation the death penalty violates the fourth commandment – Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Letting people in need of medical care die violates the Hippocratic Oath that all physicians take.  It violates the fourth commandment.  It also violates Christ’s directives to help the sick and emulate the behavior of the Good Samaritan.  Yet somehow, even though Ron Paul said that he wouldn’t let people die; the audience applauded the audience member who shouted an answer for Ron Paul.

Studies show that roughly 10% of the population is gay.  That 10% has held relatively constant through thousands of years of human history.  It has held constant in places were gays were persecuted as well as celebrated.  Large bodies of evidence point to the reality that being gay is not a lifestyle choice, but a genetic one.  That 10% also translates into all professions from ballet dancer to NFL lineman.  That means that somewhere around 10% of the volunteer military is also gay.  The active duty soldier currently serving in Iraq had good reason to ask the panel of Republican hopefuls how they would handle the recent repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” military policy.  The audience booed the questioner.  So it is clear that as far as the Republican audience is concerned, gay people are not welcome in the military.  It doesn’t matter that this person is risking his life in defense of this country.  The fact that he had the courage to admit that he was gay didn’t overcome the bias that this Republican audience has against gays.

So where does this leave us.

If those who attend these debates are representative of the general population of Republican voters, they want a candidate that will preserve the death penalty for criminals and expand it to include anyone who doesn’t have insurance or is gay.  About here is where I’d find a dictionary definition of ignorant redneck, but then maybe they have just defined themselves.

What is interesting about this election cycle is that it is now somehow “safe” to express these sorts of opinions in polite company.  I’m sure these sorts of bigotries have existed in one way or another for years, but those who held them didn’t feel free to express themselves in public because they would be labeled as ignorant and unchristian.  They were sometimes associated with less educated rural or southern parts of the country.  Now they are out there for all to see on the national stage.  All I can figure is that this is yet another manifestation of the “know nothing” attitudes celebrated and supported by the Tea Party.   It’s now OK to be a racist.  It’s now OK to be an anti-gay bigot.  It’s now OK to be self-righteous regarding the poor and those who are in prison.  It’s now OK to ignore the sick and kill the innocent.  Fortunately all these people will have to answer to their maker just like you and me.

Eat the Rich

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Robert Reich recently published an article that made the clearest argument I’ve seen yet for why the income gap is bad.

The following graphs summarize his theory.

 

 

When the income gap was small, the economy was robust because the middle class had a higher share of the profits that rising productivity generated.  A growing middle class translated into a robust consumer economy.  The robust consumer economy supported manufacturing which created jobs.  This created what Mr. Reich calls the Great Prosperity.  Wages for everyone across the income spectrum pretty much tracked productivity gains from 1947 to 1979.

In the 70’s things changed.  New technologies started to undermine the traditional American manufacturing job.  A high school education was no longer adequate.  Many of the good manufacturing jobs that had sustained the American middle class were either automated or outsourced.  High paying jobs now went to those people who could innovate and solve problems.  The entrepreneurs and MBA’s took over American industry and became wealthy.  Wealthy individuals and corporations invested some of their disposable income in lobbyists and political contributions in order to bias government rules to their advantage.

That resulted in 1980’s in the rise of conservative Republicanism.  New economic theories about the economic impact of reduced taxes were implemented.  Wealth was supposed to trickle down from the wealthy to the middle class – who by implication would have an opportunity to become wealthy too.  Rather than continue to invest in the middle class, government was deregulated and privatized.  Infrastructure spending was cut.  Education subsidies were cut.  Safety nets were shredded.  Unions were busted and the rights of employees to organize were dismantled.  Companies became global and the wealthiest people in this country saw their taxes shrink by 50% or more.  The poorest saw their taxes go up through regressive payroll and sales tax increases.

Perhaps the biggest change was in the financial industry.  Because of deregulation, what had previously been the servant of industry became the master.  Freed from regulation and insured against loss, the financial industry grew to dominate the corporate landscape.  In 2007 before the collapse, financial companies accounted for over 40% of total corporate profits and 40% of total employee wages in this country.  They demanded that the rest of the economy focus on short term profits because that produced the best performance in the stock market.  They enforced their demands by punishing those who didn’t conform.  This unyielding quarterly performance culture led directly to accounting scandals like Enron.

At the same time government was collapsing from self-imposed anorexia.  As middle class wages stagnated, the tax payers demanded lower taxes in order to make up some of the gap while at the same time expecting the same level of government services.   The result was inevitable.  Deficits exploded.

While money flowed out of middle class wages and into executive bank accounts, the middle class responded with strategies to preserve their lifestyle.  The first thing they did was send their wives to work.  So even though individual middle class worker income stagnated, middle class family incomes rose as women entered the workforce in numbers not seen since WWII.  That sustained the middle class families through the 90’s.  When they had tapped out the earning potential of both spouses, the middle class looked to pull money from their appreciating assets in order to sustain their lifestyle.  That meant taking on debt by pulling out equity from their homes.

That worked as long as housing values continued to rise and kept the economy going until the housing bubble burst in 2007.  When this final source of cash dried up, the middle class found themselves burdened with debt backed by assets that were now losing value.  They had no choice but to finally cut back their spending and begin to pay down their debts.  When middle class spending tanked, so did the economy.  There were massive layoffs which only exacerbated the deepening mortgage debt crisis.  Then we discovered that virtually every financial institution in the country was holding unknown amounts of mortgage-backed securities which themselves were of unknown value.  Banks immediately began pulling cash back into their institutions in order to cover potential losses in their portfolios.  Consumer lending stopped.  Commercial lending dried up.  Finally interbank lending stopped because lenders didn’t know which banks were solvent and which ones weren’t.  The largest financial institutions in the world began collapsing and it was only swift action by the United States government that prevented a global financial disaster.

What we left with now is an economy where the top 5% of wage earners account for 37% of all consumer purchases.  When such a small number of people control such a large percentage of the economy, it’s not surprising that we have been seeing a lot of volatility.  The rich spend when their assets are performing well and pull back when the stock market suffers a setback.

Whether you agree with this theory or not, clearly what we are doing today is not working.  So let’s look for examples of economies that ARE working to see if we can learn something.  Germany is a great example.  Germany has grown faster than the US for the past 15 years.  During that time worker pay increased 30% while during the same period of time US worker pay increased only 6%.  As far as income gap, the top 1% of Germans account for only 11% of the total income in Germany.  That’s pretty much unchanged since 1970.  What are they doing differently from us?  They are fanatical about education and their test scores show it.  They are the world leaders in high-tech manufacturing.  They have made huge investments in alternative energy – particularly solar.  They aren’t afraid to tax the rich.  They also have some of the strongest unions in the world.

So a wealth-based economy is not the inevitable state of any modern manufacturing country.  It IS still possible to have a robust, well-paid, well-educated middle class.  In fact the historical data indicates that economies based on a strong middle class are the most stable and the most profitable.

The good news of all of this is that the rich are finally coming around to this same conclusion.  This wealth-based economy is failing everyone including the rich.  Ultimately the rich through their own self-interest will come to understand that they need a strong middle class too.  Hopefully they come to that realization before too much more damage is done.

Future posts will discuss how we can move from the wealth-based economy that we have today to a new middle-class based economy.

Pray for Rain

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

First by way of disclosure, I do believe in the power of prayer.

I believe that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving.  A loving God does not punish His people.  We are His people – all of us.  We also have the ability to turn our backs on our Creator and choose to pursue our own path.  Not surprisingly, the further that path takes us from God, the more difficult it becomes for us because we start to live in a world of our own creation.  The world we create is one governed by fear rather than love because God, who knows no fear, is not there.  So we punish ourselves by choosing to live in our world rather than the one that God created for us.

It is prayer that brings us back into alignment with God.  As we humbly give up our own view of how things should be and accept that God has to have a better plan for us than we could ever create, things get better.

That’s why public prayers for rain don’t work.

A public prayer for rain suggests that somehow God isn’t aware that droughts kill crops and livestock, and hurt people.  But that doesn’t square with an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God who cares deeply for all His creation.  So something is out of whack here.  Either God is not who we think He is, or our perception of our circumstances is somehow skewed.  A more effective prayer is one that is personal and private.  One that reaffirms who God is and asks in deep humility and reverence for help in opening our eyes to God’s reality.

“And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” 2 Kings 6:17

The same thing applies to the perceived conflict between science and religion that some conservative Republicans have raised.

Science is not in conflict with God.  Science helps reveal the grandeur and precision of God’s creation.  There are laws which reliably govern the smallest particles to the largest galaxies.  This is God at work left for man to discover.

As a result, science is not in and of itself political or ideological.  Scientists are committed to a search for truth.  The scientific peer review process has a built-in bias to new solutions and new theories.  If someone has a disruptive idea and has the data to back up their claim, the scientific community engages to test both the idea and the data that the experiments created.  If others can independently reproduce the data from the experiments, the data is confirmed.  If the idea holds up to other tests with other data, the idea is also confirmed.

Sometimes people misconstrue open and frank debate over ideas as an indication that the idea itself is unreliable.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This whole process of robust questioning is what STRENGTHENS ideas.  Those that repeatedly survive challenges make the progress from theory to widely held belief.

So the theory of evolution and natural selection is widely and broadly supported by the scientific community even though there are some researchers who explore alternative ideas.  The same thing is true regarding climate change.  It is widely and broadly supported by the scientific community (97% at last count) as is the conclusion that these changes are the result of human activity even though there are some researchers who are exploring alternative ideas.

So when did science come into conflict with religion?  When scientific advances call some religious beliefs into question, those who hold those beliefs are going to object.  To be clear, scientists don’t generally seek to attack religious beliefs.  They are simply trying to explain how this wonderful creation of God works.

Galileo was engaged in the scientific process of trying to test Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe using an improved telescope of his own design.  Using that telescope he discovered moons orbiting Jupiter.  He presented this new data in an attempt to convince the Catholic Church that their geocentric theory was incorrect.  They chose to persecute him as a heretic instead.  That’s because of the belief by the church that their understanding of the Bible required the earth to be at the center of the universe.  Ultimately the church had to admit centuries later that their interpretation of the Bible was wrong.

When Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, he was widely criticized as an apostate.  That’s because fundamentalists promoted a literal interpretation of the Bible which said that God created the first man Adam.  Most all progressive churches have no problem with evolutionary theory because they treat the Bible’s creation stories as metaphors.  Fundamentalist churches, however, continue to offer alternative theories which better align with their beliefs even though those theories have not survived rigorous scientific peer review.

Neither Galileo nor Darwin overtly attacked religion.  They were simply scientists doing what scientists do, take a set of data and build a theory to explain it.  Religion on the other hand was loathe to change and as a result mounted a vigorous defense.

Global warming doesn’t have quite the same arc of revelation and response.  The response here was by conservative politicians with close ties to the oil and gas industries.  They successfully leveraged the skepticism that already existed among fundamentalist Christian communities regarding ANY scientific study.  Global warming doesn’t directly call any fundamentalist belief into question.  But because of the efforts of conservative politicians, fundamentalist Christians who were already reluctant to accept ANY science as reliable, now oppose climate change simply because it is something supported by scientists and liberals.

The most convincing demonstration of the power of the convergence of fundamentalist Christian beliefs and conservative politics is Rick Perry.  The line between belief and politics is so blurred in his candidacy that he can hold beliefs such as questioning evolution and denying climate change and still be considered a serious contender for the office.  In fact his position that there should be MORE religion in politics is one of the reasons that he quickly jumped to the head of the pack.

So many of the republican faithful are passionate about these positions that it has required less conservative candidates like Mitt Romney to walk back their previous science-based positions on Climate Change and Evolution.  For example, only 21% of Republican voters in Iowa believe that the climate is changing.  Only 35% accept the theory of evolution.  Since willful ignorance seems to be a litmus test for Republican candidates, Mr. Romney is determined to pass that test in order to win the nomination.

These are now becoming dangerous waters because we may elect someone at some point in the future who either denies the value of scientific research or pretends to believe whatever will get him elected.  This leaves only ideology as the guiding principle for leading the country.  As we’ve seen in the recent debt ceiling debate, when people take ideological positions they reduce their ability to compromise.  The result is conflict and crisis rather than effective government.

Given the challenges we face over next decade, can we really afford to elect someone who is anti-science and anti-knowledge – someone who is guided by a set of principles so rigid and inflexible that they can’t be questioned or challenged?  I hope not.