Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bread and circuses

In my last Ethical Musings post, I described how taxpayers subsidize low wages in many industries, highlighting retailer Wal-Mart (featuring them seems fair since they advertise always having the low price) and fast food restaurants.

At the height of the Roman Empire's prosperity, Roman emperors developed a policy to keep the residents of the city of Rome pacified. Historians subsequently dubbed this policy as bread and circuses. Unemployment in Rome was rampant, So, the emperors kept the people of Rome fed with low priced, often free, wheat so that people could eat. Frequent, free entertainment – circuses – in the Coliseum added excitement and provided the people something to which to look forward and to talk about. Bread and circuses worked well – as long as the Empire could afford the cost.

Does the United States (and perhaps other developed countries) have a twenty-first century policy of bread and circuses?

Instead of bread, the U.S. provides food assistance to more than 47 million people, almost 1 in 6 residents. A majority of these people are working poor, earning too little to feed and house themselves and their families. The others are unemployed.

Instead of circuses, we have professional sports and media celebrities, offering people some excitement and an opportunity to live large vicariously. The violence of professional football, with the toll that it takes on players (e.g., brain damage from repeated, severe head collisions and concussions), is eerily reminiscent of the violence of many of the Roman games.

Politicians depend upon raising large amounts of money to fund increasingly expensive campaigns that tout what the politician has done for the average voter, something too often measured in increased benefits or lower taxes rather than actual improvements in the common good or broad measures of quality of life. This explains why politicians spouting capitalist rhetoric hypocritically enact laws that help corporations generate high profits by relying on public subsidies for low-paid employees. In other words, the politicians, like the Roman emperors, seek to pacify the masses for the benefit of the elites.

Our rapidly spiraling public debt warns that the dysfunctional alliance of government and economic elites is nearing the breaking point.

Terminating public assistance programs is not the answer. Outlawing public sports and ending our celebrity culture is not the answer, although the morality of a violent sport in which so many players become permanently disabled is questionable. It's hard to think of Jesus turning a blind eye to the needy, being a fan of professional football, or applauding the behavior and performance of many contemporary celebrities.

The only viable answer is building a just society: fair wages (i.e., enough to allow a decent standard of living) for work; laws that promote full-time rather than part-time employment (employers use the latter to avoid paying benefits); taxes the fairly fund government's full cost; etc.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Taxpayers subsidize low wages and high profits

According to Wal-Mart, over 50% of Wal-Mart's 1 million, full-time U.S. employees earn less than $25,000 per year. In other words, many of these employees, working full-time, do not earn enough to lift their family out of poverty. Consequently, Wal-Mart depends upon taxpayers to subsidize Wal-Mart by providing vital financial aid (e.g., SNAP, the renamed federal food stamp program) to Wal-Mart employees.

Public subsidies for Wal-Mart are expensive. For example, a new report from Democrats on the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce "estimates that a single 300-person Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Wisconsin likely costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year and could cost taxpayers up to $1,744,590 per year – about $5,815 per employee."

Wal-Mart's advertised low prices are thus deceptive. Consumers pay those low prices when they purchase an item. Then taxpayers pay, supplementing employee pay through various aid programs.

Changing minimum wage laws to require companies to pay living wages might marginally reduce employment but would represent a net gain for the economy, shifting the burden of paying employees from a government-business hybrid model to employers, where that responsibility belongs in a capitalist system. Living wages would also boost employee morale (better to be self-sufficient than on welfare!), making low-income jobs more attractive to U.S. citizens. This might, in turn, contribute to reducing the problem of illegal immigration.

Low wages are even more prevalent in fast food restaurants than in retail establishments:

The chart below presents the estimated cost to the government of subsidizing, through public assistance, low wages for about 52% of the employees at the 10 largest fast food companies:

The 10 companies generated $7.44 billion in profits, i.e., the companies would have been profitable even if they had paid their employees an extra $3.8 billion, the entire cost of the public assistance. The research included only Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; if it included all government programs, such as child-care subsidies and reduced price school lunches, the total would be higher.

Substituting earned income through higher wages for welfare benefits employees, government, taxpayers, and even the employer (e.g., happier, higher paid employees are more likely to change jobs less often and to perform better). The average hourly wage for non-managerial, fast food employees is a miserly $8.69 according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Fast food workers are twice as likely to rely on public assistance as are employees in other industries.

The chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) reacted to the two reports in a statement to the press, describing the figures as “stark.”

“Anyone concerned about the federal deficit only needs to look at this report to understand a major source of the problem: multi-billion dollar companies that pay poverty wages and then rely on taxpayers to pick up the slack, to the tune of a quarter of a trillion dollars every year in the form of public assistance to working families,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “Seven billion of this is just for fast food workers, more than half of whom, even working full time, still must rely on programs like food stamps and Medicaid just to make ends meet.”

“In a nation as wealthy as the United States, no one who works hard for a living should live in poverty,” Harkin added. “Underpaying workers affects us all. These highly-profitable companies paying poverty wages should raise wages and listen to their workers’ demands to form a union. We should also increase the minimum wage, as I have proposed. These steps are not only the right thing to do for low-wage workers, but also the smart thing to do for the economy and for taxpayers.”

Low wages permit low prices, distorting the economy by creating an illusion that those who are not affluent live well through subsidized shopping at stores like Wal-Mart and dining at fast food restaurants.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Imaginary friends

Research in the United Kingdom suggests that children can draw help (such as improved performance on cognitive tasks including planning and puzzles) from imaginary friends:

Young children's habit of talking to imaginary friends can spur the development of an inner dialogue that they can use to talk themselves through challenging tasks now and later as adults, a study in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests.

Children often talk out loud while playing until about age 7, when their outbursts and mutterings become quieter and more internalized, research has shown. This private speech, or verbalized thought, has been shown to improve children's performance on cognitive tasks, such as planning and solving puzzles.

A recent study found children with imaginary friends used significantly more private speech than children without imaginary companions. Conversing with adults helps children develop private speech, the researchers said, and conversing with imaginary beings may serve a similar role.

For the study, 148 children, about 5 years old, and their mothers participated in a pretend visit to an ice-cream parlor at a U.K. university lab with toys and props. After the visit, the mother sat in a corner reading while the child played on the floor with toys, recorded by two video cameras. Unintelligible mutterings and whisperings were categorized as private speech. In separate interviews, children were asked if they had an imaginary companion, the friend's name and gender, and other details.

Nearly half of the children, 46%, reported having imaginary companions and just over two-thirds of the friends were invisible, the study found. Half of the mothers were aware of the companions. Children with imaginary companions made twice as many private-speech utterances during the free-play session than children without imaginary friends. No association was found between imaginary companions and the children's gender. (Ann Lukits, "For Hurdles, Even a Pretend Friend Will Help," Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2013 accessed at

I found that research provocative in two ways.

First, if God is imaginary, as atheists typically argue, does that mean prayer is useless?

Self-talk is powerful, not only for children but also for adults, e.g., top athletes, politicians, and many other people use self-talk to shape and to improve performance. Elsewhere in Ethical Musings postings, I've suggested that prayer – even in the absence of God – may be a channel through which people, linked sub-atomically to one another, are able to assist others in non-quantifiable ways.

Second, is God an adult version of an imaginary friend? Alternatively, do children create imaginary friends because of a non-cognitive, non-conscious predisposition conducive to human awareness of non-material aspects of reality? If the latter explanation is correct, then the research in the UK suggests, rather than undercuts, God's existence and activity in the world.

Furthermore, the research is also consistent with the idea that the imagination – human creativity – is one of the primary aspects of the human spirit and a point of interaction between God and humans.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The other

In Paris, I visited the Jewish Museum of Art and History (Musée d'Art et Histoire du Judaïsme). One of the museum’s themes was the persecution of Jews. Before and during the Middle Ages, Jews fled to France to escape persecution elsewhere. Jews experienced persecution in France, upon arrival, during the Enlightenment, after the establishment of religious liberty during the Republic, and during WWII.

The Dreyfus Affair – a young French Army officer at the end of the nineteenth century falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany before public outcry largely generated by a letter written by the prominent French author Emile Zola led to the officer’s exoneration – epitomizes the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that pervaded French history.

During WWII, France deported tens of thousands of Jews to German concentration camps. A few non-Jewish French risked their lives to save French Jews. But many non-Jewish French were complicit in the deportation. Nazi policies allowed the undercurrent of French anti-Semitism to surface.

Visiting the museum prompted three musings. First, we humans often define ourselves in contrast to other humans. Alternatively, we can highlight our commonality, defining ourselves by values and characteristics all humans share (or should share). Our survival as a species seems to depend upon our developing the consistent, practice of universal reciprocal altruism, i.e., care for all others. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber insightfully wrote about the importance of cultivating I-thou relationships, in which we see the other as a genuine person, instead of I-it relationships, in which we objectify the other, making them something less than fully human.

Second, I wondered against whom we discriminate today. I continue to observe prejudice – sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle – against women, people of color, and Jews. I also witness bias against Muslims and the GLBT community. Against whom else do we discriminate, perhaps not even aware that we do so? Spending time with people who are different, building bridges that span those differences, erodes the potential for difference to divide us.

Third, humans – all of us – have the potential to become evil, in part, though not entirely, because a misdirected impulse for survival may prompt us to stress that which divides rather than unites us with others. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, some people lay the blame upon greedy bankers and mortgage lends while others blame irresponsible borrowers. Greed – getting as much for self as possible – appears to be a near universal human value. Few voices have called for restructuring the financial system to impose effective limits on the greed of lenders, investors, and borrowers that will protect the system’s integrity, preserve the incentive for effort that profits provide, encourage responsible behavior with appropriate accountability for the irresponsible, and concurrently protect the naïve and less competent and maximize reliance on market and their efficiencies. That is a complicated set of constraints; most of us prefer simple problems – or at least the illusion of simple solutions – to dealing with the complexities of human and ecological interdependence. Hence, we see our proclivity to default to self-interest and scapegoating those who are different from us.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Suicide attacks American style

Suicide attacks have occurred in the United States and will almost certainly occur here again.

The highest profile suicide bomb attacks in the U.S. occurred on 9/11 when a small group of terrorists used four jetliners as bombs to destroy New York's World Trade Center, to damage the Pentagon, and in a failed attempt to strike at the Capitol or the White House.

More commonly, individuals in the U.S. opt for handguns, rifles, or shotguns instead of bombs. The individual, who embarks on a shooting spree killing random persons, is the American equivalent of the suicide bomber in some other countries. Few, if any, of these shooters expect to survive the spree. If for no other reason, easier access to weapons and to ammunition than to explosives makes shooting sprees the preferred form of mass killing in this country.

No nation with over 300 million residents, thousands of miles of borders, and millions of potential targets (e.g., the U.S. has over 600,000 bridges each of which is a potential target for a suicide bomber) can confidently expect to prevent every potential mass murder.

Mentally ill persons commit some of these attacks. More commonly, the suicide attacker is a person who wants to destroy our community and our way of life. How should we respond and how can we best prevent future attacks?

Police needlessly killing the mentally deranged woman, Miriam Carey, who attempted to drive her car onto the White House grounds earlier this month, reflects the misguided militarization of the police and the mistaken belief that overwhelming force is the best way to deter or end incidents.

Instead, the best defense begins with people living courageously, prudentially, and temperately. Succumbing to fear of attacks implicitly incites subsequent attacks because the perpetrators anticipate achieving greater notoriety and results than would otherwise happen.

Prudential living entails taking effective defensive measures. For example, the two best defenses against airplane hijacking are (1) passengers taking action against hijackers, something that derailed the fourth 9/11 attack and that has disrupted several subsequent attempted airplane hijackings and bombings and (2) hardening cockpit doors. No other defensive measure, including air marshals and airport screenings, is cost effective according to extensive risk analysis by Mueller and Steward in Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The billions spent on air marshals and airport screenings would have benefited the nation far more had we spent those funds repairing our crumbling infrastructure.

Temperate living connotes recognizing that life is inherently risky and that no amount of courage and no set of defensive measures, regardless of how extensive they may be, can reduce the risk of suicide attacks to zero. Over reacting to suicide attacks cedes victory to the attacker; even if the authorities kill the attacker, or the attacker commits suicide directly, the community, by over reacting, provides an incentive for other misguided persons to emulate the attack.

A combination of courage, prudence, and temperance represents the best prevention against future suicide attacks, but is far from a guarantee that no such attacks will occur.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The aphrodisiac of power

A reader, in response to my post Tea Party anger and ending the government shutdown, sent me this comment:

I enjoy your musings quite often. Having recently preached a sermon in which I – perhaps in advisedly, as we live in a rather so-called conservative area – used the Koch brothers as the archetypal contemporary example of the dishonest steward, I was interested in your comment about why the Koch brothers behave the way they do. Upon reflection, it seems to me that power, and control, and the shaping the world to one's ideas, is much more of an aphrodisiac than the beach. It certainly wouldn't be to me, but then, I wonder what I would be like if I were of their ilk and had enormous amounts of money! Because, of course, I recognize in myself that I would love to change the opinions and attitudes of those around me to my own!

The commenter insightfully recognizes the potency of power and control as aphrodisiacs able to seduce one into false beliefs and immoral actions, something readily apparent in most politicians regardless of their persuasion as well as in many if not most persons who deem themselves successful and self-made.

To what extent can the aphrodisiacs of power and control fuel healthy ambitions? And, if these aphrodisiacs do fuel healthy ambition, do these unfaithful aphrodisiacs eventually corrupt, seductively yet subtly enticing a person to think more of self and less of others, justifying an ever-increasing need for control because nobody else can or will get things quite so right? I am reminded that the ancients thought that pride was the deadliest of all sins.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A liberal vision for welfare

In response to my Ethical Musings post on taxes, welfare, and government, I received the following comment:

Can I ask what ideas you have for encouraging self-reliance while still being compassionate? I work at Wal-Mart. I know lots of people who take welfare as a right and make no effort to leave it; they'll even give lessons on how to do it. I also know some that get a job for 2 weeks and once they get their first paycheck quit. It's not worth it. They live just as well on welfare and child support and don't work at all.

When I talk to liberals though, any suggestion to require volunteering, more stringent requirements, even turning in obvious fraud, it is met with accusations that I want them all to starve. There are a lot of Tea Partiers here-and they aren't rich; they're working poor who see their neighbor living just like them doing nothing, so of course they want benefits cut. That's also why they don't like Obamacare- they'll be forced into Medicaid, forced to become part of the problem. It's a blow to their struggling dignity. Why try to earn their own way? The gov't has decided belong with the leaches and dead weight.

What would a liberal's vision for compassion and responsibility be?

The commenter poses a great question. What is a liberal's vision for compassion and responsibility? Compassion connotes caring for others. Responsibility connotes our relatedness, characterized by a healthy mutual interdependence that acknowledges concurrent responsibility for self and others. The vision, like life itself, must be dynamic. At least five principles, all rooted in a Christian worldview, will constructively shape the dynamic.

First, let’s begin with the bad news. No system is or ever will be perfect, i.e., sin and brokenness are real. Some people will find a way to cheat, defraud, exploit, or otherwise abuse any system. Attempting to establish a system immune to all fraud, waste, and abuse is costly, non-productive, and futile. Analogously, the only way that Wal-Mart (or any retailer) can prevent all theft is to close shop. A small percentage of both customers and employees will inevitably seek to steal. Both business and government do best when they seek to limit losses in a cost-effective manner. Spending a dollar to prevent someone from stealing a dime is bad business and bad government.

Second, let’s put the bad news in context. Most people are honest, i.e., Calvin was wrong about the total depravity of persons and Anglicans are correct that sin skews without completely destroying the imago dei. Federal and state income taxes, for example, largely depend upon voluntary compliance. Similarly, businesses increasingly rely on self-service checkouts, e.g., at supermarkets. Collectively, we reinforce honesty by expecting honesty to be the norm, praising people for being honest, reporting dishonest people, promoting a culture that frowns on dishonesty, etc. In the context of welfare, a nation minimizes abuse by promoting a culture in which people turn to welfare only as a last resort, and then hopefully as a temporary aid to returning to self-reliant independence.

Third, I have little patience with people who can’t see both sides of an argument or for whom issues are painted in blacks and whites. In fact, there are many shades of gray and we often do not know the best policy solutions. If we knew the best policies, I like to think that both the private and public sectors would have adopted them long ago. The Apostle Paul aptly described our situation as seeing through a glass darkly.

Fourth, a culture of entitlement is emerging, a culture that is unhealthy for both society and the people who share that attitude. For example, about one in seven Americans now receives food aid; in 2012, thirty thousand Michigan college students received food aid, many of them from middle class families.

Many of the people on welfare genuinely need help. Some accept aid reluctantly, vowing to become independent as quickly as they can. Other recipients accept aid because it is available; indeed, the system rewards managers for increasing enrollment. When successive generations of families spend their entire lives on welfare, the welfare system, the entitlement culture, or both are badly broken. Now is the time to deal with this problem, while the entitlement culture remains a minority.

People who see no hope for a better life, and this can include the growing number of working poor whose real incomes and net worth have fallen for the last three decades, have little incentive to work harder and to take more responsibility for themselves and their families. (For some statistics, cf. Donna Brazile, "Food stamp cuts a cruel proposal," CNN, September 23, 2013)

Liberals who refuse to admit the failures of the social safety net condemn us to living with existing abuses and holes, reducing the probability of improvements and making the growth of an entitlement culture more inevitable. Conversely, tea party conservatives who don’t recognize the inescapable interdependence that links people, and the concomitant need for social programs and a safety net, condemn themselves and their loved ones to a cold world that will show no mercy in their times of need.

Fifth, I look for pragmatic answers. What programs work? Can we replicate those successes? What programs fail? What alternative appears most promising? (One advantage, incidentally, of the federal system is that each state can adopt its own laws and programs, something centralized control and funding has unfortunately eroded in recent decades.) How can we constructively disrupt the culture of entitlement?

Pain or fear can motivate; those emotions can also immobilize. Hope and success are even more potent motivators. How do we shape programs to take advantage of human motivators, minimize bureaucracy, ensure an adequate minimum standard of living, and establish effective controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse? Encouragingly, I find a growing number of people are centrists, some approaching the middle from the left and others from the right, united by commitment to those objectives, interested in searching for new answers, committed to both a society that cares for all and that encourages self-reliance.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tea Party anger and ending the government shutdown

An Ethical Musings reader sent me the following comments in response to my last post, Tell Congress to fund the government NOW:

As you point out in this piece, when the minority is defeated, majority rules in a democracy. However, that system relies on the acceptance of those rulings by the minority, such as your continuing to pay taxes to a government that is using them to fund ends with which you disagree.

My question in the current situation is why the Tea Party people feel so angry – I know that it’s common to say they’ve been brainwashed, haven’t got brains, etc. But something lies beneath their willingness to believe what they believe.

Is it just their sense that their world is vanishing? Is it an attempt to restore something they’ve lost? If a sizeable minority is unhappy, they can in fact disrupt the system.

Why are they so willing to believe that Obamacare is evil? Why do the Koch brothers think and act the way they do instead of lolling on some island in the sun? Or our own Art Pope?

My theory is that the patriarchal world is now not just eroded, but rejected by the majority. For those who still live as “ladies and gentlemen,” this is really a disaster. A father isn’t ‘head of the family’ anymore; a mother isn’t respected as she should be; old age is not deferred to; children are not respectful of their elders. The modern trappings – mostly electronic – of our time mitigate against courtesy, good manners, and respect. “I don’t get no respect” used to be a joke... wondering what you think of all this!

The comment raises some excellent questions. As implied in the comment, ad hominem attacks – an attack directed against the person rather than the substance of the argument – against the Tea Party are wrong, for moral and logical reasons. Morally, Tea Party members are humans; demeaning or demonizing them diminishes the image of God that is in them, as in all humans. Furthermore, because ad hominem attacks fail to address substantive issues, ad hominem attacks often suggest a more logical, substantial basis for disagreeing is lacking.

I do not know why so many Tea Party members are so angry. Perhaps some of the anger stems from frustration that achievements, for which they worked long and hard, are now slipping from their grasp, or seem likely to do so. When the housing bubble burst, many middle class Americans lost money. Greta Mortenson's book, Reckless Endangerment, chronicles the unethical, frequently illegal, mortgage lending practices that created the housing bubble. Other economic changes, including the demise of much American manufacturing and the inability or unwillingness of corporations to honor their financial commitments to long-term employees and retirees, have also placed the middle class in economic jeopardy. People who bought into the American dream are now increasingly realizing that the promise of hard work guaranteeing economic security was more hype than truth. For the first time in many generations, the economic prospects of future generations seem dimmer than were the prospects of current generations. Additionally, as I have argued in other Ethical Musings' posts, the underlying economic structures are changing because of technological changes, even as underlying economic structures changed in the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions.

Concurrently, the United States is changing demographically. As you note, people who once felt in control and privileged because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or heritage have to cope with less status and power in a nation that is becoming more diverse. Caucasians, within twenty years, will be a minority (Thanks be to God!). Numerous traditional values – think about the Civil Rights movement with its ramifications for race, gender, and sex, the post-Depression social welfare programs, etc. – face challenges (Thanks be to God!). We are increasingly an urban nation that lives on the coasts while clinging to cherished vestiges of a nineteenth century rural ethos. Our political structures, especially those of the federal government, give disproportionate power to people who live in rural, lightly populated states, further exacerbating conflict and feelings of disenfranchisement.

Meanwhile, many Americans have enjoyed the illusion of living in largely uninterrupted domestic tranquility and prosperity for centuries; they have thus created a culture shaped by expectations of continuing tranquility and prosperity. That this culture does not match reality for numerous Americans (e.g., Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people of color for most periods, the working poor, etc.) has not destroyed the myth. However, in living memory, events such as the 1930s Depression, the 2008 Great Recession, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the 1960s social upheavals have fractured the myth. On a positive note, the myth can engender industriousness and hope. One unfortunate, unintended consequence of the myth is that people can easily forget a key theme of Hobbes's Leviathan, i.e., people need government to establish peace and order, for without government human passions will rule, making both tranquility and prosperity impossible. At least some Tea Party members and libertarian kindred spirits, would do well to re-read Hobbes.

Finally, I think many Americans – Tea Party members and others – increasingly feel disenfranchised by the government and consequently they feel angry. The federal government's size and complexity combined with the remoteness of our elected representatives, a remoteness shaped by both the ever-increasing number of constituents and the exploding cost of winning office, contribute to that sense of disenfranchisement.

Christian ethics teach that government has two over-arching purposes: to promote the people's welfare (the common good) and to protect them from evil. Shutting down the federal government achieves neither of those goals. Religious people can constructively promote citizens reengaging with civil society, championing the common good over self-interest (this includes honoring the government's financial obligations), and advocating for the most vulnerable.

No community – civil, ecclesial, or familial – thrives when a minority attempts issues ultimatums. The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) certainly has many flaws, some identifiable and others that will become obvious in time. Nevertheless, Obamacare is the law and the way to amend (or even repeal) it is through the normal legislative process, not through ultimatums that disrupt and diminish the common good.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tell Congress to fund the government NOW!

The United States government – apart from functions deemed essential, most of which effect national security – has shut down because Congress has failed to authorize funds for the new fiscal year that began on October 1.

I have yet to find anyone describing the shutdown as a positive development. The shutdown jeopardizes the slow post-great recession of 2008 economic recovery. Not only are many federal employees and contractors furloughed without pay, but state employees paid with federal funds (thousands of people in each state) also face furloughs. Even if all of these people eventually receive the pay they would have earned without the furlough, as happened in past federal government shutdowns, the impact on the economy will be substantial, measured in billions of dollars.

Proposals to fund high-visibility government functions such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and National Park Service are gimmicks designed to make the shutdown more palatable while ignoring the shutdown's less visible, more significant harms to some of our nation's most vulnerable. For example, Head Start, shuttered until Congress passes a bill authorizing funding for Fiscal Year 2014, makes a proven difference in children's lives. The work of important agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and dozens of others has been disrupted. Refusing to fund the government is a dumb approach to fiscal austerity that harms most Americans.

The real issue, however, is not strictly or primarily fiscal. The real issue is that a small group of Republican Representatives, all affiliated with the Tea Party movement, is holding the government and the nation hostage. Those Representatives, and the voters who elected them, oppose the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Partisanship in Congress has sunk to the point where the majority party in the House of Representatives refuses to allow a vote on any resolution or motion for which the majority party, by itself, cannot guarantee the outcome. Although the Tea Party affiliated Representatives are all members of the majority (i.e., Republicans), the Tea Party Representatives comprise less than 15% of the House and less than 30% of the majority. In other words, a relative handful of Representatives are holding the government and nation hostage in an attempt to impose their will on the majority.

Living in a democracy occasionally requires accepting decisions with which one strongly disagrees. In prior Ethical Musings posts, I have argued for gun control, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for broadened access to healthcare and abortion, for gay marriage, and other positions at odds with the law of the land. Yet I abide by the law. I willingly pay my taxes, although I know that conceptually some small part of those tax dollars will fund programs with which I vehemently disagree. A nation in which people demand on having their own way, refuse to compromise, and are unwilling to live with laws and policies with which they disagree, ceases to be a functional nation.

The United States is rapidly heading toward dysfunction. Indeed, some people would contend that the U.S. has already reached that sad state of affairs when government's basic machinery has ceased to work.

In two weeks, economic difficulties will become worse. The U.S. will reach its debt ceiling, the amount of money that the nation can legally borrow. The deficit has exploded over the last couple of decades, and especially the last two presidential administrations. Both political parties are responsible. President George W. Bush was wrong to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan entirely through debt (I think he knew that additional taxes to pay for the wars would never pass Congress) and concurrently to cut taxes. President Obama was wrong to rely so heavily on debt to finance programs designed to reverse the steep increase in unemployment that occurred during the Great Recession. Congress was complicit in all of those decisions.

In the short run, the government's only viable option is to raise the debt ceiling. In the longer run, Americans must pay more taxes to fund government adequately and we must eliminate wasteful government spending while continuing to provide important services, e.g., stop throwing money down the drain in Iraq and Afghanistan but continue to ensure that we have a strong social safety net in this country.

Linking issues – such as funding the government, healthcare legislation, and the debt ceiling – seems certain to make difficult problems more intractable. Grand solutions that simultaneously solve multiple problems are almost assuredly impossible in today's highly partisan, acrimonious political climate. Instead, we may make more progress by looking to parse larger issues into smaller problems, seeking agreement where that can be found and agreeing to compromises elsewhere.

Sadly, failing to find a path forward places the U.S. on a par with other dysfunctional nations in which democracy, perhaps for other reasons, does not exist or does not work, e.g., Russia, Italy, and Mexico.

Congress works for us. Tell them to do their job, to fund the government, to preserve democracy, and to model good citizenship for the rest of us.