Friday, September 30, 2011

Social welfare programs are cost effective

Helping people costs less than protecting people from criminals. Charles Blow in his New York Times’ column, “It Takes a Village” (September 23, 2011), describes a community housing project in New York City. He features the story of a young girl, Madison, who attends the day care center in the basement of the housing project. Then he provides some eye-catching statistics about costs:

Well, the cost of the building plus renovations was $17 million. So if it houses 190 people, that works out to about $89,500 a person, not including most of the children served by the day care center.

But let’s put that into the context of prison construction, for instance. According to the New York State Commission of Correction, 1,000 new jail beds will have been built between the end of 2007 and the end of 2011 in the counties of Albany, Essex, Rensselaer and Suffolk at a cost of $100,000 per bed.

Furthermore, as Broadway Housing Communities points out on its Web site, “permanent supportive housing for an individual costs taxpayers $12,500 annually, compared to annual costs of $25,000 for an emergency shelter cot; $60,000 for a prison cell; and $125,000 for a psychiatric hospital bed.”

Well-designed, well-managed social programs benefit the individuals involved, benefit society, and lower government costs. Consequently, I find it difficult to understand why some people and groups so strenuously object to government social welfare programs, programs that everyone from Jesus to Adam Smith can appreciate.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Naturalism, atheism, and post-theism

Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times offer helpful background to some of the theological and philosophical issues that I address in this blog.

Alex Rosenberg (“Why I Am a Naturalist,” September 17, 2011) describes the epistemological foundation that naturalism seeks to establish. The unanswered question that looms large for naturalism is whether the scientific method can potentially discover all knowledge or whether some knowledge and experiences exist that are inherently not amenable to scientific discovery.

Unlike Rosenberg, I believe that naturalism can only advance knowledge so far, that some of reality is not susceptible to scientific discovery. For example, humans value art in ways that do not seem to have any evolutionary benefits. Otherwise, why would so many starving artists, working in all genres, continue to pursue their art when obtaining a paying job or career would make the person much more attractive as a sexual partner and provide substantially increased resources for child raising?

Gary Gutting (“Beyond 'New Atheism,'” September 14, 2011) correctly recognizes that most people do not believe in God because of philosophical arguments but because of experience. The glaring shortcoming of strident atheists like Richard Dawkins (cf. Michael Powell, “A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy,” New York Times, September 19, 2011) is their failure to recognize that personal experience forms the basis for most religious belief. Similarly, the glaring shortcoming of most theists is their reliance on anachronistic conceptions of the ultimate that lack coherence when examined from a scientific worldview.

Science cannot shed light on the nature of the ultimate directly. But science provides powerful insights about what the ultimate is not, e.g., the ultimate is not a cosmic puppeteer or heavenly vending machine.

The challenge for post-theism is to articulate a metaphor for the ultimate that excites the human imagination and acts as a catalyst for evoking experiences of the ultimate. To date, light seems the best candidate for such a metaphor (cf. Ethical Musings: Experiencing light).

Monday, September 26, 2011

War cost update

Evidence about the harm that concussions cause to the brain is accumulating. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that as many as 200,000 veterans already have suffered brain damaged because of concussions they received while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Other estimates place the number as high as 320,000 veterans. These “unseen” injuries are just one of the numerous hidden costs associated with both wars that U.S. taxpayers will continue to pay for decades to come. (Sharon Weinberger, “Bombs' hidden impact: The brain war,” Nature News, 21 September 2011, Vol. 477, 390-393 doi:10.1038/477390a)

Meanwhile, both the cost of the wars ($1.25 trillion) and death toll (7528 U.S. and countless Iraqis and Afghans) continue to increase.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The authority that shapes your life

Matthew 21:23-32 depicts a fascinating interview between Jesus and several Jewish civic and religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ interrogators, disturbed by his teachings and healings, the ruckus his presence has caused, and the threat he poses to their power want to know by what and whose authority he acts.

Jesus replies using a tactic to which lawyers and authority figures generally object. He answers their question with a question of his own, skewering his interrogators on the horns of a dilemma. He asks them whether John the Baptist, when John called the Jews to repent and then baptized those who did so as a public symbol of their repentance, acted on human or divine authority. If they replied that John’s authority came from God, the obvious follow-on question was why they did not accept John’s message; if they replied that John acted only on human authority, they would alienate Jews who believed John was a prophet.

So, Jesus’ interrogators pled ignorance and declined to answer his question. Jesus then declined to answer their question about the source and nature of the authority with which he taught and lived.

That’s good news for us, who seek to follow Jesus’ example. We do not need to tell anyone the authority or authorities upon whom we rely to shape our lives. But the question is worth considerable reflection because honestly and individually identifying the source (or sources) and nature of the authority that shapes one’s life can clarify a person’s true spiritual identity.

Nominally, most or all of us identify ourselves as Christian. We’ve received – hopefully – the sacrament of Holy Baptism through which God grafts a person into Christ, the living vine. Yet, as Jesus’ parable of the two sons emphasizes, words are cheap. The obedient son obeyed his Father whereas the disobedient son only paid lip service to the Father’s request. Similarly, telling yourself that Jesus shapes your whole life is both dishonest and stymies spiritual growth.

Actions are much more costly and far more revealing. When you really look at yourself – not your physical appearance in a mirror, but your inner self, revealed in your actions – do you see Jesus? More tellingly, do others see Jesus? Our worship includes a prayer of confession precisely because nobody fully obeys. The absolution assures us that God lovingly embraces us anyway, encouraging us to persevere in trying to walk the Jesus’ path.

On November 30, 1971, five heavily armed men shot out the glass doors of a New York City bank and entered the bank firing automatic weapons, wounding twelve people. A bank teller ran from the robbers and made it to an upstairs, women’s restroom. One gunman chased her, but he stopped at the door to the ladies’ room, shouting at her to come out. When she refused, he went downstairs to help his colleagues finish robbing the bank. He might be a murderer and a thief, but he would not enter a women’s restroom. (Adapted from the New York Post, cited by William Lutz, The New Doublespeak (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996))

In what ways does your life exhibit a similar crazy pattern of values, some Christian, and some of your own choosing? In what ways have you, liked the allegedly devout whom Jesus criticized for tithing herbs and allowing their parents to go hungry, emphasized obedience in small things and ignored the important dissonances between your values and lifestyle and Jesus’ way? In what ways are you like the child who says yes, and then does otherwise?

Theologian, musician, and physician Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. The Episcopal Church annually commemorates his life and work on September 5. Born in 1875 in Kaysersburg, Germany, he died at the hospital he had founded in Lambaréné, Gabon, in 1965 where he lived for all but six of his last 52 years.

Schweitzer is an inspirational example of the Christian life for four reasons. First, he was obviously multi-talented. You may not have the abilities to be an excellent theologian, musician, musicologist who organized, funded, and provided medical care to patients at a 500 bed hospital. However, God values everyone; God gives every person multiple gifts and abilities with which to enrich her/his life and community. It is not the size but the use of one’s gifts that is vital.

Second, Schweitzer took his Christian commitment very seriously. Like most of us, Schweitzer’s family of origin was Christian; they lived in a culture shaped by Christian vocabulary, symbols, and values. He could easily have gone with the flow, wearing his Christianity as comfortably as an old coat. Instead, he believed that the happiness and blessings he enjoyed entailed a responsibility to serve others. Thus, he exchanged the pleasant life of a respected scholar for the hardships of life as a medical missionary in the African wilderness. His actions spoke far more loudly than his words.

Third, Schweitzer had a cosmic vision of God deeply rooted in experience. He believed that a single ultimate reality existed and that the world’s religions were all paths along which people journeyed toward that reality. That reality – God – called people to respect all life. He lived this commitment and inspired called the rest of the world to do the same.

Fourth, Schweitzer was very human. Scholars now ignore his most important theological work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, believing his conclusions about Jesus being a self-aware Messiah who emphasized the impending end of the world were wrong. Mid-twentieth century visitors to Schweitzer’s hospital found the facility primitive and third-rate. He was autocratic and regarded most Africans as younger siblings rather than peers.

Who, or what, shapes your life?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Confidence and overconfidence

Bruce Bower, writing in Science, reports that overconfidence often boosts individual success in competitive games (“The bright side of overconfidence,” News In Brief: Humans - Science News, September 14, 2011). Reading that note primed me for Ian W. Toll’s review of Laurence Bergreen’s new book, Columbus: The Four Voyages (“The Less Than Heroic Christopher Columbus,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 23, 2011).

Toll’s portrait of Columbus seems hauntingly accurate: Columbus was “a visionary explorer. He was a harbinger of genocide. He was a Christianizing messiah. He was a pitiless slave master. He was a lionhearted seaman, a rapacious plunderer, a masterly navigator, a Janus-faced schemer, a liberator of oppressed tribes, a delusional megalomaniac.” In other words, like most people, Columbus was a bundle of contradictions. Unlike most people, he lived life on a larger canvas, with more far-reaching consequences.

The annual commemoration of Columbus’ discovery of the New World has become a source of social conflict as people align in favor of or against Columbus and his discovery. Given both the inevitability of European conquest of the American continents (conquests that Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel argues always end badly for indigenous people) and Columbus’ outsize and contradictory personality the conflict over the explorer and the renamed Discoverers’ Day holiday seems unlikely to end any time soon.

However, reflecting about Columbus’ exceptional self-confidence is worthwhile. Had Columbus not such so much self-confidence, it is unlikely that he would have persevered in his ocean journeys. Similarly, high achieving leaders in all occupations – the military, business, government, etc. – possess large amounts of self-confidence.

Undue self-confidence can result in an arrogant person who is out of touch with reality.

Conversely, a lack of self-confidence results in individuals who do not live into their full potential, afraid of failure, incorrectly uncertain of their ability to achieve.

Cultivating healthy self-confidence seems especially important in children. The current concern about bullying addresses only half of the problem. Bullying is wrong; parents, churches, schools, and others who work with children and youth should establish and enforce policies against bullying.

But we do not live, and do not want to live, in a police state. No matter how many policies we establish and how consistently enforced those policies are, bullying will still occur when nobody is watching. Consequently, the other half of the problem with bullying is that the person bullied finds her/his self-confidence eroded, perhaps even turned into self-doubt.

Eleanor Roosevelt wisely observed, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” My parents regularly emphasized that what other people said or did offered no excuse for my behavior. There is no substitute for healthy self-confidence. Whether a child (or person of any age, for that matter) is gay, or overweight, or of a different race, or different in some other way that prompts taunts and bullying, the child who has enough self-confidence to dismiss those comments as empty words has received a gift of grace from affirming adults in her/his life.

Similarly, adults who experience the unwanted and painful disintegration of an intimate relationship or who find their employment terminated, who nevertheless can truthfully continue to affirm their self-worth, have received this same grace filled gift of self-confidence.

I am somebody because God created me and God does not create junk (in the words of a young boy from the ghetto that appeared on a 1970s era poster).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Spending time to buy happiness

A friend forwarded the following to me. I’m sure that this has been on the internet for some time. I do not know the source, but found the thought worth pondering:

Imagine that you had won the following prize in a contest: Each morning your bank would deposit $86,400.00 in your private account for your use.

However, this prize has rules, just as any game has certain rules.

The first set of rules would be:

Everything that you didn't spend during each day would be taken away from you.

You may not simply transfer money into some other account.

You may only spend it.

Each morning upon awakening, the bank opens your account with another $86,400.00 for that day.

The second set of rules:

The bank can end the game without warning; at any time it can say, it's over, the game is over! It can close the account and you will not receive a new one.

What would you personally do?

You would buy anything and everything you wanted, right?

Not only for yourself, but for all people you love, right? Even for people you don't know, because you couldn't possibly spend it all on yourself, right? You would try to spend every cent, use it all, right?


Each of us is in possession of such a magical bank. We just can't seem to see it.


Each morning we awaken to receive 86,400 seconds as a gift of life, and when we go to sleep at night, any remaining time is NOT credited to us.

What we haven't lived up that day is forever lost.

Yesterday is forever gone.

Each morning the account is refilled, but the bank can dissolve your account at any time.... WITHOUT WARNING.

SO, what will YOU do with your 86,400 seconds?

Those seconds are worth so much more than the same amount in dollars.

Think about that and always think of this:

Enjoy every second of your life, because time races by so much quicker than you think.

So take care of yourself, be happy, love deeply and enjoy life!

Here's wishing you a beautiful day.

Start spending

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

True grit

New York Times’ columnist David Brooks recently wrote a depressing column about the morality of the current generation of students. In essence, they act on the principle “if it feels good, it is okay.” These students have difficulty identifying moral questions and even more difficulty developing their own moral analysis. Although they widely agree that rape and murder are wrong, few can explain why that is true and have few moral precepts beyond those two. The column so bothered two friends that they sent me links to it. (David Brooks, “If It Feels Right ...,” New York Times, September 12, 2011)

Two days later, I read an article about a school that attempts to develop character in its students. (Paul Tough, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?New York Times, September 14, 2011) Researchers are leaning toward the conclusion that grit, not intelligence, may be the key to human success.

One researcher, Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed a self-administered test GRIT to measure an individual’s grit. West Point has discovered that the grit test is a better predictor of success for plebes going through Beast Barracks (the cadet’s initial summer at West Point) than the test that the academy had used. For more information on the scale, its validity, and interpreting results, cf. “Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale,” Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174, 2009.

Anecdotally, perseverance and consistency (measured by the Grit Scale) seem more correlated with success and happiness than is intelligence (measured by IQ or in other ways). Intuitively, that assessment also seems correct. The Duke (John Wayne, for those who are not cinema fans) had it right: grit can and often does overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles.

Thankfully, adults can inculcate into children habits that lead to success and happiness. Consistency and perseverance, as measured by the Grit Scale, are two habits critical for success that adults should strive to teach to children.

But success does not consist of perseverance and consistency alone. Hitler, Stalin, and a host of other evil people had lots of both.

An essential set of habits is discerning the ethical from the unethical (or moral from the immoral, for those who prefer that language). Two of those habits are not killing and not raping, which a person adopts out of respect for life and the integrity of others. Several other habits are important (this is not an exhaustive list): truth telling, respect for property, and respect for liberty. These moral habits, also known as virtues, are aspects of success that go beyond perseverance and consistency.

Duckworth’s research, while not a panacea or a counter to what Brooks’ reports, certainly implies a direction that optimists and others concerned about ethics can adopt.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Some thoughts about inheritances

Proposals to eliminate the estate tax in the United States (also known as the inheritance tax) deserve no substantive consideration. Without an estate tax, the United States will expedite formation of an economic elite. Providing for some minimum amount to pass from one generation to the next (say, $5 million adjusted annually for inflation) and for a spouse or life partner who predeceases her/his spouse/partner to pass their entire estate to the remaining spouse/partner is reasonable.

In all other cases, the estate tax should be 100%. The federal and state governments should rescind all provisions for passing assets via trusts and these governments should tax gifts to family and others in excess of the $5 million at 100%.

In other words, assets remain with an individual (or couple) only during the generation that accumulated those assets. The necessity to impose death taxes (the United Kingdom’s version of estate taxes) to eliminate the economic elite in the U.K. is strong evidence in support of this policy.

Why take umbrage at this proposal?

The proposal is not a wealth transfer plan. Indeed, the plan is just the opposite. The accumulated wealth goes to government to fund general operations; without good government, living the good life is impossible.

The proposal allows parents to give a reasonable amount of assets to their children, honoring the natural care and affection that parents generally feel toward their children. The proposal also works to the children’s advantage by encouraging children to earn their own way in life, becoming productive members of society. The recommended ceiling for legal inheritances is sufficiently high to permit parents to ensure adequate finances for the care of any child unable physically or mentally achieve full financial independence.

The suggested ceiling is sufficient to permit true, family owned and operated enterprises (farms, factories, etc.) to pass from generation to the next. In fact, rhetoric about estate taxes preventing family businesses being passed from one generation to the next is mostly a shibboleth. The number of real family farms has dropped precipitously. Beyond a certain market capitalization (perhaps $5 million?), a business generally becomes more of an independent corporate entity than family concern.

The proposal may discourage individuals from accumulating vast wealth. By default, this inherently creates more opportunities for others. Alternatively, the proposal may result in more high net worth individuals donating their assets to charity.

Does this proposal seem radical? High worth individuals such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates advocate similar proposals for the same set of reasons, perhaps setting the ceiling for assets passing from one generation to the next at a slightly higher level than what I have proposed.

What I fail to understand is why the vast majority of U.S. citizens, who have no realistic prospect of ever accumulating sufficient assets to trigger estate taxes, so vehemently oppose a policy that is in their, and the nation’s, best interest.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More heat than light in Palestinian-Israeli conflict

The governments of Israel and the United States publicly contend that the United Nations recognizing a Palestinian state poses a security threat to Israel. Arguments like that represent emotion rather than rational thought.

Given #1: Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will vacate the land in the Middle East that they now occupy unless coerced to do so. That is not going to happen. In other words, Israelis and Palestinians must recognize this reality and learn to co-exist. The only hope for peace is for both Israelis and Palestinians to accept the other’s presence.

Given #2: Israel, in many ways, legally discriminates against non-Jewish citizens and has committed itself to remaining a Jewish state, i.e., perpetuating the identity of Arabs as second-class citizens. The only hope for justice in the Middle East is for the Palestinians and Israelis to each have their own state.

Given #3: Talks intended to establish a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed. Over three decades of negotiations, dating back at least to President Carter and the Camp David accords, have not generated sufficient momentum to achieve a two state solution.

Given #4: Israel benefits by postponing formation of a Palestinian state, continuously nibbling away through settlements, wall encroachments, and other means at territory that the United Nations intended to be part of the Palestinian homeland. The Palestinians achieve nothing by postponing formation of their own state. Indeed, formation of a Palestinian state will impose the responsibilities and accountabilities of nationhood on the Palestinians, moving them away from terrorism by investing them in preserving the new status quo.

Given #5: The United States will not allow Israel to vanish or Jews to endure another holocaust. In fact, Israel will possess more military might than any Palestinian state will for decades.

So why the dishonesty by the United States (and Israel) in declarations about the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition? The Palestinian bid for statehood recognized by the United Nations affords the U.S. an excellent opportunity to affirm the right of all people to self-governance (i.e., democracy), to stand firmly and publicly with Arabs, and to support justice. Opposing the Palestinian bid for recognition is simply wrong, morally and pragmatically.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mapping peace in the Middle East

David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has proposed three alternative maps for a Palestinian state with two strong positives (“Mapping Mideast Peace,” New York Times, September 11, 2011). First, using the 1967 plan, the proposed borders swap Israeli land for Palestinian land on the West Bank, incorporating between 67 and 80 percent of all illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Second, the borders also expand the Palestinian land adjacent to the Gaza strip. The article is worth a look because of its excellent depiction of the three proposals.

Because Gaza remains disjointed from the West Bank, none of his proposed plans result in a contiguous Palestinian state. Nevertheless, the plans eliminate the Swiss cheese status quo in which Israeli settlements dot the West Bank.

Peace will not come to the Middle East until the Palestinians have a viable, internationally recognized nation of their own. These proposals may not be perfect but they demonstrate that establishing a Palestinian nation is not a realistic option.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Afghanistan update

Jonah Blank, author of two books on radical Islam, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “Every invasion of Afghanistan has eventually come to naught, either because the invaders paid insufficient attention to local culture or because they sought to impose centralized control. If the United States is interested in leaving behind a better Afghanistan than the one it found, it needs to take those experiences to heart.” (To read the full article, follow this link, “Invading Afghanistan, Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011.)

Another article in the same issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Truth about al Qaeda,” argues that for a decade the United States has over estimated al Qaeda’s reach and power. Al Qaeda is a criminal organization best countered with law enforcement methods and resources, supplemented by military personnel and resources when appropriate (e.g., the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden). Considering the U.S. locked in a battle against Islamist terrorists unhelpfully magnifies the scope of the problem, exacerbates the problem, and confers unwarranted status and glory upon the terrorists. Al Qaeda is no closer to its goal of establishing a global Islamist state today than ten years ago.

Although the U.S. is drawing down the number of military personnel in Afghanistan, the number of U.S. government civilian employees working in Afghanistan has more than tripled, from just over 300 to1040. Each employee costs the U.S. government the staggering sum of approximately $500,000 per year in salary, income supplements, hazardous duty pay, travel, and other employment related expenses. (Afghanistan's Civilian Surge Comes with Enormous Price Tag and Uncertain Results - Yochi J. Dreazen -, September 8, 2011) Of course, the additional, hidden cost in those statistics is the cost of providing protective security for each employee. Given the bleak prospects for success in aiding one of the world’s most corrupt governments to establish effective central governance in a nation that has never had an effective central government, these financial and personnel resources could surely make more of a difference if invested in developing economically downtrodden U.S. communities.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Miscellaneous musings

Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Palestine, in spite of U.S. opposition, has taken its case for statehood to the United Nations, asking the U.N. to condemn the Israeli building of settlements on the West Bank. The Palestinians have acted correctly. U.S. opposition is primarily a function of U.S. politicians fearing repercussions from the Israeli lobby if the politicians speak the truth about Israeli expansion into West Bank territories that the various parties had previously agreed were part of any future Palestinian state. Israel is stalling, wanting more land for settlements and wanting to finish construction of its apartheid like fence to separate Israel from a Palestinian state. U.S. complicity in aiding Israel’s efforts will potentially strengthen the Islamist elements among Palestinians, add fuel to Islamist’s terrorist recruiting campaigns, and unhelpfully postpone the possibility of peace in the Middle East.

Economic Reinvention: Gardens are sprouting across America as people plant, consume, and sell vegetables, often at substantial cost savings over grocery store prices. (Sabrina Tavernise, “Vegetable Gardens Are Booming in a Fallow Economy,” New York Times, September 8, 2011) People are discovering that without full time employment, gardening not only offers potential cost savings or even an income, but also can provide relaxation, good exercise, and other non-financial benefits. Wendell Berry would be pleased!

Economic Stimulus: Economists generally seem to approve of the majority of President Obama’s proposals for putting people back to work, predicting that if Congress enacts the necessary legislation the proposals will increase employment by 1% to 3%. (Phil Izzo, “Economists React: Gauging Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal” and “More Economists React: Gauging Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal,” Wall Street Journal, September 8 and 9, 2011) Congressional reactions varied more, meaning that passage is far from certain.

Avoiding a “double dip” recession will benefit everyone in the U.S., triggering positive ripples broadly around the world. As I’ve argue in this blog previously, government spending (pace John Maynard Keynes) can create jobs; balancing the budget will require revenue increases (Warren Buffet and other billionaires have boldly acknowledged they pay too little in taxes); and solutions to some problems (e.g., Social Security) are relatively painless (cf. Ethical Musings).

The Arab Spring: The spring uprisings in Arab countries against despotic rule have yet to produce the democratic governments many in the West anticipated. In some cases, Islamists dominate and are working to establish Sharia (Yemen, probably). In other countries, the military appears to hold the upper hand and may act to reestablish a dictatorship (Egypt). In still other countries, the revolt continues (Syria) or verges on success without an effective new government having yet emerged (Libya). None of these uprisings has brought a group linked to al Qaeda to power or prompted calls for establishment of a pan-Arab nation.

Democracy is always the result of a nation’s citizens struggling. Progress is often slow and achieved in phases (e.g., in the U.S. the franchise that began with white property owning males has expanded to include all races and both genders with no economic requirement). Democracy is the form of government that most respects individuals and is most congruent with Christianity. Christians and other pro-democracy advocates can best assist nascent democratic movements by consistently applauding and supporting visible progress toward greater respect for rights and the principles of democratic government.

New York’s 9/11 Commemoration: A mild furor erupted because New York City did not invite any clergy to join in leading the City’s main observance of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Like New York’s Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan, I have no objection to the omission. Contrary to the response of the Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States is a secular nation. Inviting one or more representatives of religious groups creates a real conundrum: which groups and which representatives to invite in order to appear appropriately inclusive. The National Cathedral encountered this problem with its interfaith memorial service, receiving criticism from evangelical Christians and others for inviting a Buddhist nun and not a Baptist minister. (Laurie Goodstein, “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest,” New York Times, September 8, 2011) My guess is that the Buddhist nun is closer to the beliefs and thinking of most Episcopalians than is the average Baptist minister. For example, the largest group of Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention, does not recognize the ordination of women, an insult to our Presiding Bishop.

Healthcare Costs: Primary care doctors earn more, pre-tax, in the United States than in any other nation according to a recent survey. The average $186,500 is almost twice as much as in the two countries where primary care physicians earn the least, $92,800 in Australia and $95,500 in France. (Robert Pear, “Doctor Fees Major Factor in Health Costs, Study Says,” New York Times, September 7, 2011) Tax rates are also higher in both Australia and France, yet neither country has a shortage of primary care physicians. This study provides one more piece of evidence than healthcare in the U.S. needs fixing. We pay more than people do in any other country for less than optimal results.

Unfortunately, the recent healthcare reform legislation falls far short of the needed reforms. Multiple payers (i.e., private insurers and various government programs) ensure excessive administrative burdens will continue to plague providers. Fee for service gives providers an incentive, enhanced by trial lawyers ready to sue at every opportunity, to order multiple tests and treatments, ignoring costs and outcome data. In short, healthcare in the U.S. is a pricey, dysfunctional hodgepodge rather than an effective and efficient system of prevention and care.

Money and Politics: This column, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” written by veteran Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, offers an insightful and disturbing picture of why Congress is ineffective (Truthout, September 3, 2011). I find the analysis resonates with everything that I, an outsider, know about the internal workings of Congress and an ill omen for the future of democracy in this country. As much as I support free speech, this column makes me think that the time has come to stringently and rigidly limit the amount of money that an individual can spend or contribute to political causes and campaigns. The unintended consequence of not limiting this spend has been to severely erode the ability of poor and middle class Americans (i.e., the vast majority of citizens) to participate meaningfully in our political process.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Today is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Christians believe that God brings good things out of bad. In reflecting on 9/11, I see three God moving in three ways.

First, Jesus calls his followers to live in truth, not in a world of illusion. The biblical story of the exodus, from which we have heard successive installments in each of the first readings the last few weeks, depicts Egypt as an eleventh century BC analogue of the twenty-first century United States. Egypt was prosperous and powerful, their world’s only superpower. Then came their 9/11: God, according to the text, destroys their illusions of invulnerability and control with seven plagues.

Similarly, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. killed almost 3000 people, destroyed billions of dollars of property, and emotionally scarred countless thousands. As huge as those consequences were, 9/11’s major impact was spiritual. The attacks fractured, or even shattered, widely held illusions of invulnerability and control. Both illusions are false and profoundly unchristian. Human finitude means that we are vulnerable and not in control. Interpersonally, genuine relationships require vulnerable self-disclosure and healthy bonding that enables misuse or abuse. Physically, healthy living can diminish but not eliminate vulnerability. Cells develop cancer; diseases attack. Communally, even the United States’ unprecedented wealth and military power cannot insulate us from terrorist attacks, mass murders, economic downturns, and other problems.

Living in truth leads those who seek to walk the Jesus path not only to acknowledge but also to appreciate life’s risks and vulnerabilities. My awareness that this is perhaps my last hour of health, or even of life, helps me to cherish this moment and these relationships more fully.

Second, Jesus calls us to envision a future shaped in his image. The Christian future is communal, a dimension of the gospel often downplayed or ignored in our highly individualistic culture. Moses returned to Egypt to lead God's people out of slavery. Paul established communities of believers, not individual converts. Jesus chose and formed a group of twelve disciples, not twelve individuals.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we as a nation recalibrated our thinking in unhelpful, ungodly ways. Fear pushed aside courage, pessimism replaced optimism, and present conflict pushed aside our vision of God's plan for the future. Theologically, we began living and thinking as if the gospel ended with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection.

However, the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 acted differently. They refused to accede to terror, said no to evil, and lived into a vision of the future shaped in Jesus’ image. We should follow their example and do the same.

In the Exodus narrative, Egypt responded to its 9/11, as did the United States to its 9/11, by waging war. Today’s first reading describes the annihilation of Egypt’s army and that war’s ugly ending. Biblical scholars and historians thankfully shed some light on the disparity between the narrative and actual history. At most, only a handful of slaves revolted and fled Egypt. A mistranslation of the Hebrew in the text sets events at the Red Sea rather than the Sea of Reeds. Great artists like Cecile B. DeMille bring this scene to life with powerful but inaccurate imagery of water cascading down upon and drowning the Egyptian army. More likely, the small band of escapees eluded their pursuers by safely fleeing through marshes impenetrable by soldiers in chariots and on horseback.

As a military retiree and visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School, I am very thankful that the U.S. military has not suffered annihilation in Afghanistan or Iraq. Sadly, however, both of the wars launched in response to the 9/11 attacks seem destined to have ugly endings. After ten years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan remains largely ungovernable and has one of the world’s most corrupt governments. Iraq, after eight years of occupation and in spite of a lull in violence produced primarily by putting tens of thousands of Iraqis on the American payroll, remains riven by sectarianism and tribalism. Violence among Iraqis is escalating as the U.S. withdrawal proceeds. And in spite of some notable successes against al Qaeda, the world is not greatly safer or more peaceful today than on 9/12.

War, in the twenty-first century as in the eleventh century, is occasionally necessary to stop a great evil like the Nazis, but war does not move us along the path to peace. What then shall we do? This is the third lesson to learn from 9/11 and its aftermath. Jesus calls us to begin transforming the present into the future, incarnating the image of Jesus in our lives and our relationships.

The epistle lesson (Romans 14:1-12) offers practical advice on how to incarnate Jesus in our lives by living and dying for Jesus, that is, others. The heroic actions of first responders on 9/11, including many Episcopal clergy, exemplify this costly love for others. The first two National Guard pilots sent aloft to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 scrambled in planes without live ordnance. Arming the planes would have taken too long. Between them, the two pilots had decided that one would aim for Flight 93’s cockpit, the other for the tail. Both are grateful for heroic passengers whose bold action precluded the necessity of trying to time a mid-air collision and ejection.

The gospel lesson (Matthew 18:21-35) also offers practical advice on incarnating Jesus in our lives, directing us to forgive others not once, not seven times, but countless times. The parable clarifies that forgiveness is not for Christians alone. In the last decade, we in the Episcopal Church have emphasized God's love for all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. We should also emphasize God's love and practice radical hospitality for people of all religions, including Muslims. God loves everyone, even Muslims.

One of my favorite paintings is Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” which is actually a series of paintings by the nineteenth century American Quaker depicting various animals – predators and prey – gathered in peace. Unlike our present world filled with danger, Hicks paints the future, first envisioned by Isaiah (11:6) and echoed throughout the New Testament, in which God rules and humans dwell in peace with one another.

We cannot erase the tragedy of 9/11, turn back time, or redeem the suffering the attacks caused by attempting to preserve illusions of security, invulnerability, and control. Instead, we best honor and remember the dead by embracing our vulnerability, focusing on God's vision for the future, and walking the Jesus path to live into that future.
(Sermon preached at St Paul's Episcopal Church, Louisburg, NC on September 11, 2011).

Friday, September 9, 2011

Terrorism and building peace

In preparing my sermon for this Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an analogy between eleventh century Egypt and the twenty-first century United States occurred to me. The first reading for Eucharistic services that day (Exodus 14:19-31) continues the series of readings from Exodus describing the story of God delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Eleventh century Egypt is prosperous and powerful, their world’s only superpower. Then along comes their 9/11: the renegade outlaw, Moses, shatters their illusions of invulnerability and control with a series of seven plagues.

Perhaps drawing a parallel between Egypt and the United States makes you uncomfortable. Let’s consider that discomfort carefully. God loves all people equally, Egyptian and Israelite, and U.S., Saudi, and Yemeni. God has only chosen one nation, Israel. Much is good about the United States. I proudly served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and for three years as a visiting civilian professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. But in spite of any wishes that we may have, the United States is not synonymous with the kingdom of heaven; the American way of life is not identical with the Jesus path; and God has no plan of manifest or exceptional destiny for this nation. The disjuncture in the analogy is not in drawing a parallel between the United States and Egypt but between Osama bin Laden and Moses.

In the narrative, Egypt responded to its 9/11, as did the United States to its 9/11, by declaring war on the attacker. Today’s first reading describes the annihilation of Egypt’s army and its war’s ugly ending. Biblical scholars and historians helpfully shed light on the disparity between the story and actual history. At most, only a handful of slaves revolted and fled Egypt. A mistranslation of the Hebrew in the text sets events at the Red Sea rather than the Sea of Reeds. Great artists like Cecile B. DeMille bring this scene to life with powerful but inaccurate imagery of water cascading down upon and drowning the Egyptian army. More likely, the small band of escapees eluded their pursuers by safely fleeing through marshes impenetrable by soldiers in chariots or on horseback.

Thankfully, the U.S. military has not suffered annihilation in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, both of the wars begun in response for the 9/11 attacks seem likely to have ugly endings. After ten years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan remains largely ungovernable and has one of the world’s most corrupt governments. Iraq, after eight years of occupation and in spite of the lull in violence produced primarily by putting tens of thousands of Iraqis on the American payroll, remains riven by sectarianism and tribalism. Violence among Iraqis is escalating as the U.S. withdrawal proceeds. And in spite of some notable successes against al Qaeda, the world is not greatly safer or more peaceful today than on 9/12.

War, in the twenty-first century as in the eleventh century, does not move us along the path to peace. War may prevent an evil tyrant from global domination, as occurred in the Allies’ successful war against the Nazis. There are few such justifiable, necessary wars. In all other circumstances war moves the world further rather than closer to establishing peace.

Ending terrorism requires a multi-dimensional response. However, the use of force in responding to terrorism should adhere to a law enforcement rather than warfighting model. Prior to 9/11, the United States, like most other nations countered terrorists with law enforcement methods and resources. Other nations continue to rely successfully upon law enforcement methods and resources to ensure their safety and security. The U.S. should do the same.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Accountability and compassion

Much current political discourse in the United States pits advocates of personal accountability against advocates of social compassion.

Advocates of personal accountability want individuals to take responsibility for their actions. Men who father children should pay child support and assist in other childcare responsibilities. The same is true for women who give birth to a child. Individuals who overspend, whether through credit card mismanagement or taking an unaffordable mortgage, should suffer the financial consequences of those choices.

Advocates of social compassion want to ensure that everybody has a minimum quality of life. People make poor choices for many reasons. Regardless, everybody deserves basic food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. Government programs appropriately express the community’s social compassion.

I find both views have merit. Paternalism is unhealthy. Rabid individualism is also unhealthy. Neither works. The confrontational either/or rhetoric obscures that both accountability and compassion are indispensable.

The nation (like a family or any health community) needs to balance compassion and accountability. A healthy family holds its members accountable and ensures that nobody suffers catastrophic failure.

The larger the group, the loser the bonds that bind people together, the more difficult to identify and to inhabit that healthy balance. Yet that is what we as a nation (all nations) and we in our civic communities need to do.

For example, an individual should be accountable for any child the individual procreates. However, penalizing the child by making the unwanted child entirely dependent upon an uncaring, inept parent who consistently shirks parental responsibilities makes the child and the rest of society into losers. We need creative alternatives for accountability coupled with genuine, contextually appropriate compassion.

The constructive, Christian middle ground for public discourse will work to hold individuals accountable for their actions, aiming to incentivize and to form, not to punish or to inflict vengeance. The constructive, Christian middle ground for public discourse will work to establish compassion for all, not as a substitute for accountability but as a complement, caring for the most vulnerable and least among us as if they were Jesus himself.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thinking about the income tax

Headlines this month announced that nearly half of U.S. households will not pay federal income tax this year. Reaching for impact, the articles sometimes de-emphasized the numerous other taxes that people pay (payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, sales tax, state income tax, federal taxes on gas and cigarettes, sales taxes, excise taxes, etc.). (Stephen Ohlemacher, “Nearly half of US households escape fed income tax,” Washington Post, April 7, 2010)

The non-payment by this half of the population is not a function of non-compliance. Instead, by combing the standard deduction, four exemptions, and tax credits a family of two adults and two children under seventeen with an income of $50,000 owes no federal income tax for 2009.

Some predictably declared this non-payment of federal income tax scandalous: the rich pay a disproportionate share of the tax; beneath the non-payment of federal income tax lies creeping socialism; etc. Others predictably supported the tax policies that allow the poor and relatively poor to keep more of their income.

Let me offer a more nuanced view. First, most employed people should pay at least a modicum of federal income tax, e.g., half a percent of their income. The U.S. should sufficiently streamline and simplify its tax laws and regulations that persons and households with average income do not need to hire a tax preparer to file an accurate return and to pay the minimum tax due. The government could then collect the money now spent on tax preparation as tax revenue, leaving the taxpayer no worse off financially.

The federal income tax code is now about 70,000 pages long and Americans spend 7.6 billion hours coping with it. Imagine the gain in productivity if that time could be redirected toward a more constructive use! Eighty-two percent of Americans now pay for help in preparing their taxes. Even the director of the Internal Revenue Service – the man responsible for administering tax collection – pays someone else to prepare his taxes. (“April 15th: The joy of tax,” The Economist, April 8, 2010) Although simplifying the tax code would adversely effect the tax preparation and tax law industries, the increased compliance from a simpler system should be well worth the economic dislocation.

Furthermore, paying some amount of income tax would give everyone a stake in government. Government of and by the people becomes more real when people financially contribute to government operations. For example, one-half of one percent of $50,000 is $250, not a huge sum, but something.

Second, people who earn more should pay relatively more than people who learn less, i.e., the nation should have a progressive tax structure. Flat tax proposals in which everybody would pay the same percentage of income in tax discriminate against low- and middle-income people. Excluding dividends and interest from taxation further discriminates against low- and middle-income people because they generally receive the lowest percentage of their incomes from such sources.

Mere existence (food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare) requires some level of income. Quality of life frequently improves as one spends more on those items and on other, discretionary items, e.g., vacations and toys. A nation that truly values all of its citizens will ensure that all have adequate means by which to pay for some minimum standard of living. Nations can achieve this through a variety of welfare programs. Tax policy contributes to this goal by taxing the wealthy more heavily than the poor.

The Christian Bible does not directly speak to tax policy. However, the Bible repeatedly underscores the importance of justice. No person chooses the family into which to be born or the family that raises him or her. Treating my neighbor equitably requires that I consider how I would feel if born with different genes or reared in a different neighborhood. Some wealth differences are a matter of individual effort and initiative. Most wealth differences are a function of matters over which individuals have no control, a truth that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers emphasizes in a highly accessible yet thoroughly researched manner.

Ideal levels of employment and unemployment

U.S. unemployment exceeds 9%. Over 15% of employed U.S. adults want to work more hours or are underemployed, working at a job for which they are over qualified.

By historical standards, that is a high level of unemployment. Economists believe that a low level of unemployment aids the economy by preventing cost-push inflation in labor markets and aiding the free movement of individuals between jobs for reasons of personal preference, geographic relocation, acquisition of new qualifications, etc. By any reasonable benchmark, 9% unemployment is at least twice that desirable minimum level of unemployment.

Furthermore, the percentage of U.S. adults employed in the labor force has dropped over the last three years from 64% to 58%, returning to its historical average after having been abnormally high for the last ten to twenty years (Allan Sloan, "Relief from Economic Turmoil," Fortune, September 5, 2011, p. 59).

Two factors seem likely explanations for the increased rate of adult employment: (1) in a growing number of couples, both partners want paid employment; (2) in more families, one income no longer purchases the desired standard of living.

The two factors overlap but not entirely, e.g., some individuals who do not need the income choose paid work for reasons of self-esteem, to use acquired skills/knowledge, or for personal satisfaction.

One structural issue the U.S. and other developed nations will increasingly face is how to constructively, productively employ everyone who wants to work at an affordable, attractive, and fulfilling job. Labor markets are increasingly international, as work becomes a commodity that international corporations import and export to their advantage. Labor costs are generally lower in developing nations than in developed nations, which has resulted in widespread offshoring and extensive importing of consumer goods.

A second issue that individuals and families might advantageously address is to choose intentionally the standard and style of life that best suits their situation. Choosing for one adult to stay at home with the children, for example, sharply reduces childcare, work- related, and tax expenses while perhaps increasing the entire family’s quality of life. The abundant life is not necessarily the consumer lifestyle that results in a large home and multi-car garage crammed with possessions that nobody uses or really cares about.

One possible partial solution to this set of difficulties is for people to work fewer hours per week, spreading available employment among more individuals and accepting lower incomes in return for more time off. Some European nations have taken a few tentative steps in this direction but generally found that employees want to preserve their incomes in spite of working fewer hours.

As technology enables us to live better with fewer possessions, the ethical question of how much is enough will become ever more poignant: how many shirts, how many pairs of shoes, how many TVs (perhaps even none – just a tablet!), how many vehicles are questions that we can beneficially rethink.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thinking about community

New York Times’ columnist David Brooks has recently written (“The Haimish Line,” August 29, 2011) about his summer trip to Africa with his family. Brooks describes two types of experiences that he and his family had: primitive camps at which guests and staff socialized, eating and sometimes playing together; more luxurious camps at which guests and staff were rigidly segregated, with staff serving guests.

Upon returning home, he discovered that the entire family had enjoyed the experience more at the primitive camps despite the lack of showers, more basic sleeping arrangements, etc. In spite of the brief stays, a sense of community between guests and staff developed at all of the primitive camps, a fact to which Brooks attributes his family having had a better time.

Wealth seems to distance people from one another. Certainly, some level of affluence provides an essential minimum standard of living and perhaps even some unnecessary but much appreciated creature comforts. However, beyond a certain level of affluence, increased wealth seems associated with diminished levels of community that in turn decrease happiness and satisfaction.

In conversation with a friend, I suggested that increased wealth might create in many individuals a desire to exhibit their prosperity, to “show off” their affluence. My friend responded with examples from his life of people with whom he had once been close but with whom, over time, relationships had become more distant. In each instance, my friend believed the distance a function of the other person’s increased wealth. (He also cited an example of a friend who had remained close although this person’s wealth had grown significantly – in short, these assessments are generalizations, not absolutes.)

Then I read a program that seeks to put veterans to work in remote areas of state and national parks. The veterans attracted to the program learn new skills and hope that a temporary job may lead to a career in a park. Program proponents contend that the program is great for veterans having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Vets work as members of small teams, often in remote locations, performing a task of public service that may entail some risk – all analogous to military service. The pay is only $8 per hour, but that beats living on the street.

The commonality between Brooks’ vacation and the veterans’ employment program is the emphasis on community. Americans increasingly live in isolation from one another. Mobility often weakens or dissolves ties with extended family. Over-scheduling and changing priorities devalues the nuclear family, making leisurely, shared meals all too rare. Texting is eclipsing not only face-to-face communication but also phone conversations as the medium of choice. Yet frequent superficial interaction cannot replace in-depth communication, always a time intensive activity.

Contrast our lifestyle with what we know about Jesus’ lifestyle:

·         He walked, allowing much time for reflection and conversation.

·         He enjoyed eating meals with friends, taking time to enjoy their companionship.

·         He sought time for private reflection and prayer.

·         He cultivated friendships with a relatively small, select group of people even though he interacted more superficially with large numbers.

One of the things I like about being part of a reasonably small worshipping community is that participation can aid in cultivating those same habits.