Archive for September, 2008

Rabbi Lerner: Don’t Try Band-Aids to Keep the Tower of Babel Standing

September 25, 2008

From Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, a great essay which not only addresses the current discussion of a federal bailout, but which touches on a number of topics on which I hope to elaborate some day:

Rabbis of antiquity interpreted the attempt by humanity to build a Tower of Babel that would allow people to storm heaven as a symbol of human hubris and technological power gone crazy. It was globalization for the sake of power, not for the sake of kindness or goodness, so, according to the Bible, God ensured that the whole thing would collapse. Scrambling languages and created a multi-cultural reality provided a way for humans to develop their own less imperialistic goals, diffusing power and challenging the notion that the path to salvation lies with material conquests and technological prowess.

Our contemporary capitalist system and its globalization of selfishness has evolved into a similarly grotesque distortion as people are increasingly socialized into the goals of the system: accumulate as much money and power as possible, and refuse to allow any other ethical goals into the public sphere (we are allowed to pursue them in our own “private lives” but not together in social space). The human suffering that results is not only for the poor. As people internalize the ethos of the marketplace and its “looking out for number one” and its seeing others primarily in instrumental terms (“what can you do for me to further my goals or satisfy my needs?”), families feel increasingly unstable, education becomes training to “make it in a global competition,” and politics increasingly focuses on how to best assist the most powerful in their aims to secure or increase their wealth, or to protect American corporate interests as they increasingly seek to dominate world markets.

The pursuit of money and power is a huge ethical distortion for human life and destructive for a society. Whether manifested in the failed wars in Vietnam or the continuing bloody conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and Iran, or in the collapse of our banking, insurance, and stock market systems, the ethos of selfishness and materialism are not sustainable in the 21st century.

So the careful and skillful manipulating us into a mass hysteria that this all be worked out immediately and before Congress goes on recess to run for reelection, with dire predictions that nobody knows to be true, to rush to use our monies (currently proposing a trillion dollars, but there will be trillions more to come, because we will be nurturing a “culture of dependence” by the rich and their corporate holdings) to bolster this way of life. Democrats have bought in. Yet it is a huge error—it’s like trying to put bandages on the Tower of Babel. Of course, the wealthy all think that this is an immediate emergency—they suspect that a Democratic President and Congress might be more willing to demand a better deal for ordinary citizens in return for using their tax dollars this way. And they think that our tax monies (of which they contribute very little, should be used to “provide confidence to the markets”-meaning themselves). Many of them don’t care that the resulting inflation is likely to make most working people’s savings, retirement accounts, and social security considerably less valuable in real purchasing power terms. But they are wrong to fear the Obama election—the Democrats, including Obama, are as much committed to propping up the current system as the rich, in order to prove (to the pundits and inside-the-Beltway crowd and their wealthy funders who together constitute their primary reference group) that they are “responsible.” So their demands for “accountability,” re-regulation, and “limits on executive incomes” throws the merest little restraint while the hundreds of billions that will be spent will resuscitate the system of selfishness, keep the majority of corporate executives benefiting from the excesses they current enjoy, and not even touch on reshaping the fundamentals.

This is an extraordinary moment, a crisis like this is a precious thing and should not be wasted. If we had any ethically or spiritually visionary leadership, they would reject any immediate bailout, and instead, talk of ethical and spiritual reconstruction of the society in accord with a New Bottom Line: that every institution should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring for others, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.

To start that process, we should demand that any corporation receiving help from our government give a corresponding level of ownership and control of their venture to the people of this country. Moreover, any such corporation should be required to meet the terms of the Network of Spiritual Progressives‘ proposed Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution: that any corporation with an income of more than $50 million a year must get a new corporate charter once every ten years, to be granted only if it can prove a satisfactory history of social responsibility as measured by an Ethical Impact Report and as decided by a jury of ordinary people whose task is to represent the interests of the common good.

Meanwhile, the rest of us should be protected as the Tower of Babel collapses. So the hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown recklessly by our Congress into the hands of the very people and corporations that fostered the current meltdown, should instead be used to create a national bank that would provide mortgage assistance at affordable rates, buy up and restart in the hands of the people who work within them any at-risk corporations providing socially useful functions at a price not dictated by the need to ensure that the wealthy prosper, recreate ( for those who’ve lost them) and sustain (for those who still have them) pension funds for families with incomes under $300,000/yr., create a single-payer universal health care system of the sort now being used by Members of Congress, and provide strong incentives for alternative energy-oriented investment and a minimum wage that rises with inflation to ensure adequate compensation for working people.

Yet these are only baby-steps, and the moment is now to insist that the elections themselves be dedicated to exploring more visionary approaches to reconstructing our economy on the basis of caring for each other and rejecting the materialism and selfishness that has perverted our media and threatens to continue to destroy our economy in the years to come. Just say “no” to the demands for an immediate “bailout” of the wealthy with your tax monies-and take the time to use this amazing historical moment to put ethical and spiritual values back into our economic life!

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Warren Buffet and Federal Bailouts

September 24, 2008

If you’ve been concerned about the state of the U.S. market, you can breath a sigh of relief: brilliant investor Warren buffet signaled confidence by investing five-billion dollars in financial giant Goldman Sachs. While relatively fit compared to many of the U.S. financial institutions in the news, Goldman Sachs has faced some challenges in the current turmoil. According to the WSJ, “its profits have waned and its stock got hit last week.” Buffet’s move can be seen as a sign that financially savvy minds are still confident in the economic power and resilience of the U.S.

Or perhaps it can be seen as a sign of something else entirely. Buffet has very publicly endorsed Treasury Secretary Paulson’s 700 billion dollar federal bailout proposal. Is Buffet seeing an opportunity to fertilize his investment with federal funds? He buys stock deeply discounted by the market slump, a massive injection of federal money reinvigorates the market, and the shrewd purchase yields a windfall profit.

I’ve seen plenty of plausible reasons to be skeptical of the the administration’s bailout proposal, from both sides of the aisle, including from both McCain and Obama. If this economic fiasco is one deep and momentous enough to require federal intervention (a debatable notion), it should most certainly be structured in such a way that the primary beneficiaries are those average people who are struggling to keep their small businesses, their homes, or food on the table. It should not allow the executives who ran these ships aground and held out a tin cup to Washington to walk away with golden parachutes. Nor should it fill the cups of savvy billionaires in the hopes that the bounty will trickle down to those who have suffered most from Wall Street’s short-sighted greed.

Jeffery Zeldman: A Modest Proposal

September 16, 2008

Among the things I do when not pretending to be a political commentator or actually doing my job at the library is I pretend to be a web designer. I’ve put together a few small websites (honest, Kyle, yours is coming together!), and try to keep follow the latest developments on css presentation, interactivity, and web standards on the online forums, journals, and the blogs of the industry leaders.

One of the biggest names in the industry is Jeffery Zeldman. But Jeffery also shares some good common sense thoughts on politics on occasion. Recently he made a plea for a very common sense idea in political advertising.

It is illegal to make false claims in a TV or radio commercial unless you are running for political office.

If you’re selling toothpaste, your claims must be vetted by legal and medical professionals. But not if you’re selling a candidate.

If you’re selling a candidate, not only can you lie about his record, but more to the point, you can lie about his opponent.

…Lies, and a candidate’s embarrassing efforts to brush them aside, fill the news cycle and constitute the national discourse. And this terrifying and morally indefensible rupture from reality persists even when the country is on its knees.

If networks refuse to accept cigarette advertising, how can they readily approve dishonest political advertising? Cigarettes kill individuals, but lying political ads hurt the whole country. No democracy can afford this, let alone when the country is at war, and under existential threat from terrorists, and in economic free fall (“A Modest Proposal,” Zeldman.com)

The entire post is well worth a read. The idea isn’t novel, but it is certainly worth pondering. There isn’t any way to ban lying, as truth is so often in the eye of the beholder. But requiring campaigns to have some coherent evidence upon which to base their claims (as well as having a media willing to take up their vital role to our Democracy as the fourth estate and aggressively challenge the statements of the campaigns and their supporters) would do a lot to improve the situation.

Experience, Exshmeariance

September 13, 2008

I’m passionate about and fascinated by political theory and ideology. But when I observe electoral politics, such as the current presidential campaign, I’m reminded of how nauseating it is to watch the sausage being made.

Much has been made of experience by both major parties in this race. Curiously, the type of experience considered important has varied depending on the given situation. For McCain, national service experience was the key factor for most of his campaign, with experience in war and as a POW seemingly implied as particularly relevant. Since the relative neophyte Palin was added to the ticket, government executive experience at any level became particularly important (though Rove apparently has a caveat for executive experience in Virginia). For Obama, experience was overrated—that is, until the selection of Biden and the introduction of Palin. Now federal experience is crucial (as is, apparently, experience as executive of a presidential campaign). And if we want to recall ex-candidates, Clinton seemed to consider being a member of the presidential household experience compelling to the electorate.

In reality, experience is a rather insignificant factor in determining presidential material. Plenty of presidents have served adequately or better despite little political experience, such as the iconic Abraham Lincoln. A long record can help give us insight into the candidate’s comprehension, judgement, and competence; but that record, that experience, does not itself guarantee quality. There have been plenty of politicians with lengthy tenures whose most outstanding characteristics were their consistent mediocrity.

Rather than listening to the campaigns quibble over experience, voters would be better served getting a measure of the competence, comprehension, and judgement. For example, instead of listening to imaginative speculation that Alaska’s proximity to Russia and Canada or the governor’s role as commander-in-chief of her state’s national guard translates into meaningful foreign policy experience, the public should view Palin’s interview with Charlie Gibson for clues as to her depth of understanding perception on international affairs. Same goes for Obama, McCain, and any other of the third-party candidates you personally may (and should) consider. Simple as that. The prattle of each campaign about experience is just an annoying distraction.

Utah Solar Tour

September 11, 2008

This Saturday (September 13), the Utah Solar Energy Association is sponsoring the Northern Utah Solar Tour. It appears that over fifty buildings will be exhibited in Ogden, Park City, SLC, and Orem/Provo showing off various types of solar energy features. The tour is part of the National Solar Tour promoted by the American Solar Energy Society. Should be some very interesting information and ideas for how to reduce energy use and dependence on fossil fuels.

(for any readers in the Dixie area, the Southern Utah Solar Tour, with buildings in St. George and Cedar City, will be on September 27).

Schlafly’s Lie about Democrats and Abortion

September 4, 2008

A few days ago, Tom Ashbrook interviewed Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum and a primary leader in grassroots conservatism. One particular exchange caught my attention.

CALLER CAROLINE: …I would like to ask her: If Sarah Palin were a Democratic candidate with a tiny special needs child at home and a 17-year-old daughter that’s expecting a baby that’s unwed, how the Republican Party of family values would view the fact that the mother went to work just a few days after the special needs baby was born. So that’s what’s happening with the Republican Party, and I would like her to comment…

TOM ASHBROOK: …We’ll put it to her. Are you a Republican, Democrat, independent, what?

CAROLINE: Former Republican, due to this, exactly what we’re describing.

ASHBROOK: Phyllis Schafly, what do you say…?

PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY: If Sarah Palin were a Democrat, she would have aborted the baby. That’s the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats (“The Soul of the GOP,” On Point with Tom Ashbrook )

Never mind the fact that, as was pointed out later in the interview, 90% of Down Syndrome pregnancies are aborted (does Schlafly presume that the overwhelming majority of Down Syndrome pregnancies are conceived among Democrats?). She stood by her statement, outrageous as it was.

As I’ve addressed at length before, many—perhaps most—liberals (people like Schlafly typically conflate liberals and Democrats) do not encourage or approve of abortion. We may believe that there needs to be some recognition of and respect for what is typically an agonizing choice for the mother, a recognition that postnatal life deserves just as much sanctity as prenatal, and that we can do more to support life by providing support for those who chose life than by heavy-handed government control. Unfortunately, people like Schlafly are determined not to see the difference between that broader perspective and actually advocating abortion.

A good friend of mine, one who is ardently liberal, recently wrote a very intimate and emotional essay in which she expressed her abhorrence of abortion.

For years now I’ve been saying, “We need to keep abortion legal to save lives,” and I still believe that. But at the same time, I hate abortion. Abortion is violent and invasive. I can imagine that just as birth and health exams can be extremely traumatizing for women who have been raped or sexually abused, abortion is no different. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a surgical abortion with a history of sexual abuse or after being raped, but given the high percentage of these incidences, it seems likely that a great many women who choose to abort are in this category. That makes abortion a seriously disgusting proposition…

…Pro-choice advocates do women a disservice when they refuse to recognize the authentic human experience of abortion, in which a woman might not leave the clinic feeling empowered and independent, but instead feeling abused and disgusted – even while feeling also that they absolutely made the right choice…

I hope that abortion will stay legal, but even more importantly, I hope to see the reasons for unwanted pregnancy attacked with precision and strength. This means, above all, preventing unwanted pregnancy from occurring. This speaks to issues of comprehensive sex education, the availability of contraception to people across the economic spectrum, and further development of contraceptive methods.

This also speaks to poverty and our culture of rape and easy exploitation of women and children. Our habit of blaming the victims followed by ostracism and judgment doesn’t help, either. Our lack of support for women for whom abortion is not the uterine equivalent of dental work speaks volumes about perpetuated stereotypes and dichotomies in our culture. (“Abortion Redux,” Conscious Intention )

Like my friend, I vehemently challenge the Pro-Choice advocates who trivialize the procedure—though I rarely hear such arguments. Maybe they were more prominent a few decades ago, earlier in the abortion conflict, but those sentiments seem rare now. Virtually everyone I hear from on the Left recognizes the gravity of the issue.

I join Schlafly in my admiration for Palin’s willingness to take on the challenge of raising the Down Syndrome child God gave her—just as I equally admire the Democrat running for the Utah House of Representatives in Davis County who is raising a Down Syndrome child.

Schlafly is right to criticize those who promote abortion or discuss it lightly. But she is wrong to lump all Democrats (or all liberals) in that same boat. It is an outright lie to assert that a Democrat would have aborted the baby.

I’ve heard conservatives complain that it is wrong when some liberal voices assert that conservatives don’t care about the poor and disadvantaged. And these conservatives are correct; while far too many conservative commentators use the Moral Conservative Criticism against Social Justice, or disregard the problems which poverty represents, there are a good many who do care deeply about the poor. We may have disagreements with them about the manner in which to alleviate poverty, but we cannot discount their sincere concern for the issue. I hope these same conservatives will understand our grievance with Schlafly’s statements.