Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pursuing happiness

To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece that the President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, wrote. In Brooks' memorable phrasing, "Love people, use things" results in greater happiness than does "Love things, use people." (Arthur C. Brooks, "Love People, Not Pleasure," New York Times, July 18, 2014)

Brooks, incidentally, argues for loving people and using things as the path most likely to produce happiness. He develops his argument using the musings of Abd al Rahman III, a 10th century emir and caliph in Spain, absolute ruler of his kingdom. Rahman exemplifies the person who loved things and used people; by his own count, he could only identify 14 days of happiness in his life.

I personally want (and, thankfully, have enjoyed) much more happiness than Rahman had. Loving people and using things – a philosophy not coincidentally congruent with all of the world's great religions – offers a much more promising path to happiness.

Which of those aphorisms – "Love people, use things" or "Love things, use people" best describes your philosophy? Which most accurately describes how you live? Which is correct, that is, which path will you seek to follow if you wish to live abundantly, maximizing your happiness?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hamas and Israel

Finger pointing in the lethal conflict between Israel and Hamas is easy. Both parties are guilty of much.

Hamas lobs rockets at Israel. These weapons are so primitive that accurate aiming consists of simply choosing the general direction in which those launching the rocket want it to fly. The rocketeers cannot really control either the distance the rocket flies or its precise trajectory. Consequently, the rockets are more likely to hit civilian than military personnel or facilities. The rockets cause more fear than actual damage.

Hamas steadfastly declares that the state of Israel has no right to exist. This indefinitely perpetuates the enmity between Hamas and Israel.

Conversely, Israel routinely inflicts collective punishment on the people of Gaza. One form of this collective punishment is the destruction of dwellings in which a known or suspected Hamas member lives. Since most dwellings are large apartment complexes, the destruction of one unit almost invariably renders all of the building's residents homeless. Air strikes are similarly a form of collective punishment because, given the population density and the size of warheads for even precision guided munitions, collateral damage is almost impossible to avoid. These dynamics explain the apparent contradiction between the large number of Palestinians killed in the current attacks and Israeli assertions that they carefully target only known or suspected terrorists.

Israel has also imposed a longstanding blockade, limiting access to and from Gaza by sea, air, and land (except for the portion of Gaza that abuts Egypt). This has created an apartheid type of ghetto of approximately 149 square miles in which 2 million live (a population density of over 20 persons per acre). Israel prevents any material from entering Gaza that they deem useful in waging war. This includes weapons, construction supplies, and much else. The blockade not only isolates Gaza but also dramatically reduces its residents' quality of life.

Israel claims that it wants peace, yet continues to build new settlements on the West Bank, refuses to agree to the Palestinian government performing functions sovereign states view as normal prerogatives, e.g., conducting their own foreign affairs, providing for their own defense through their own armed forces, controlling their own borders, etc.

Prolonging the conflict with the Palestinians is not in Israel's interest. Every passing year brings Israel that much closer to the time when its Palestinian citizens will outnumber its Jewish citizens, forcing Israel to choose whether to be a secular democracy or a Jewish state in which non-Jews are officially second-class citizens. Tactics such as collective punishment and the current ground incursion into Gaza evoke global disdain and erode support for Israel.

Unfortunately, prolonging the conflict with Israel is in the perceived interests of both many Islamist extremists and Arabs. The Arab countries do not want to accept Palestinians displaced by Israel – displaced voluntarily or involuntarily – as immigrants, instead forcing the Palestinians to live in semi-permanent refugee camps in near squalor. This continues to stoke the fires of Palestinian anger and keeps animosity against Israel high, fueling ongoing terrorist activity.

After several generations living in refugee camps, growing numbers of Palestinians have less desire to return to the land that was theirs before the 1947 establishment of the modern state of Israel. Palestinian demands for "the right to return" are increasingly a figurative rallying cry rather than a literal goal. The Palestinians want a legitimate state; continuing Israeli encroachments from the building of new settlements and expansion of existing ones coupled with the steady construction of the wall to separate Israel from Palestinian areas make the goal of a Palestinian state seem ever more elusive.

The path to peace requires Palestinians developing hope for a better future that includes their own truly sovereign state. Only as the Palestinians exercise real responsibility for self-governance can Israel realistically hope that Palestinians will recognize that their peace and prosperity are inextricably linked to Israel's peace and prosperity. Israel cannot force the recognition of this linkage; it is something that the Palestinians must perceive for themselves.

The present spate of violence and killing between Hamas and Israel reinforces preexisting biases on both sides that make mutual peace and prosperity impossible. Those biases are that Israel wants to destroy Hamas and that Hamas wants to destroy Israel.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Living abundantly

Chelsea Clinton now earns significant honoraria as a speaker, sometimes as much as $75,000 for an hour-long speech. When I learned about those fees, I had three thoughts.

First, this is capitalism in action. Capitalism promotes people earning as much as they legally can. The Clintons (Bill and Hillary each receive as much as $200,000 per speech) are far from alone in receiving large fees for speeches or public appearances. Reagan, shortly after leaving the White House received a total of $2 million for two speeches he made in Japan. Unease over theses large fees points to a more basic unease with respect to capitalism: capitalism, for all of its merits, constitutes an inadequate ethic by which to live. Along with others, Ayn Rand was wrong when she argued the opposite. Money and self-reliance are insufficient to produce, much less assure, happiness.

Second, why would anyone carp about what Chelsea Clinton receives for a speaking engagement? (For an example of someone who did, cf. Maureen Dowd's column, "Isn't It Rich?" New York Times, July 12, 2014.) For better or worse and for a variety of reasons, all three Clintons are easy targets for critics. However, regardless of who the speaker or person making the appearance is, cashing in on one's popularity somehow seems cheap and demeaning. Although veniality is not criminal, it is not morally admirable either. This cheapening diminishes the ability of a sports figure to be a role model for youth, the glamor of an entertainment celebrity, and the credibility of a politician.

Third, why would anyone (or any organization) pay such a substantial fee to hear Chelsea Clinton speak on any topic? The answer is almost invariably that the person or organization paying the fee hopes to somehow obtain influence or prestige (which is simply a form of potential influence) through the connection. The hoped for influence may be with the audience invited to the event, with the recipient of the fee, or both. This aspiration for influence is consistently the motive regardless of the speaker's ideological orientation, achievements, etc.

If the goal is gaining influence with the speaker, money at a minimum buys access and at the other extreme buys the speaker's loyalty. Neither may be illegal, though the latter may come close to bribery. In the case of Chelsea Clinton, the large fees may reflect the payer hoping to gain influence with one or both of her parents.

As a teen, I recognized that I had the abilities and potential to earn sufficient income to care for myself, perhaps even to become truly wealthy. As I reflected on that possibility and read biographies of people who had accumulated much wealth, I concluded that wealth was insufficient to ensure happiness, i.e., living an abundant life. Something more was required to make life meaningful and richly textured. I found that something more in developing loving relationships with others, in enjoying and caring for the world in which we live, and in glimpses of the ultimate. I wonder whether Chelsea Clinton, and others who receive such large fees for speeches or public appearances, have settled for something less.

Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles in their book, Big Bucks, contrast a successful life with a significant life:

Blanchard and Bowles, Big Bucks
Joy = Energy
Purpose = Drive
Creativity = Value

Which do you lead? Which do you want to lead?

Monday, July 14, 2014

A new Declaration of Independence

An Ethical Musings' subscriber sent me the following manifesto from the Shalom Center. While you may not agree with all of it (I personally find that, as is true of most if not all manifestos, some of its demands are too far reaching and many of them lack sufficient nuance), the manifesto highlights fundamental problems in the US and possible solutions. At a minimum, the Shalom Center's proposal is constructively provocative and worth the time it takes to read.

The Shalom Report

Independence Now!! from Corporate Domination
A New Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

That all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are:
• life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
• the sharing of community
• a life-sustaining share of the earth's abundance
• honorable jobs with living wages and income, based on livable hours
• a rhythm of work and rest that frees time for family, neighborhood, citizenly service, and the Spirit
• democratic elections and legislatures not controlled by wealth
• peace among all peoples
• and responsible relationships amidst the whole web of life upon this planet     

We affirm that governments, corporations, and other institutions are founded solely to secure these rights and uphold these responsibilities, deriving their just powers from the consent of those they govern and whose lives they shape.

We affirm that at the present time, the power of large corporations --- especially those in banking, the military-industrial complex, health care, and fossil fuels -- is dominating many branches and aspects of the American government and deeply damaging the American future;

 And therefore we demand:
1. Actual full employment with a living income for all on the basis of a 32-hour work week

2. Universal health care on the model of Medicare for all

3. An end to all US military action, overseas military bases, and the use of violence against any person by the military or any other US agency that have not been specifically authorized by Act of Congress or by the issuance of a public arrest warrant by a Federal District Court after public pleadings.

4. Restoration of full Congressional control over declaration or initiation of any war, as well as adherence to the United Nations Charter; the reduction and redirection of US military spending to meet the needs of defense, not corporate subsidies; and the redirection of funds now wasted beyond those needs to meeting the urgent civilian needs of the American people and of poverty-stricken regions of the world.

5. Abolition of all surveillance and collection of any data and metadata concerning any communication from or to any citizen or resident of the United States, without the issuance of a search warrant specifically naming and describing the person to be surveilled and the data to be collected — such warrants to be issued by a regular US District Court and made public no later than 60 days after issuance.

5. Strong laws to prevent global climate disaster and swiftly move the US and world economies from fossil-fuel dependence to renewable energy; such laws to include capping greenhouse-gas emissions and placing a rising tax on the production and emission of carbon dioxide and methane, with the income to be divided among (a) support for renewable forms of energy; (b) support for poor nations to shift to non-carbon economies; and (c) dividends to be paid to all American citizens;

6. Laws requiring that all large corporations that do any business in the United States be periodically and publicly reviewed by a jury of citizens chosen from the normal panel for civil lawsuits, in seven-year intervals to ensure and enforce that they are meeting the needs and balancing the interests of their stockholders, workers, customers, the environment, and society as a whole

7. A Constitutional Amendment providing that all persons born in the United States be registered to vote at birth, and shall be qualified to vote in all elections upon reaching the age of 18

8. A Constitutional amendment to pay for all election campaigns solely by public contributions by the US or the states, and contributions from natural persons, i.e. actual human beings, under limits set by Congress

9. Requirement that rules of the US Senate, proposed laws, and confirmation of appointments be adopted or amended by a simple majority vote, with provisions for time-limited debate.

And to the achievement of these goals, with the help of Divine Providence and through our covenant with each other, we pledge our hopes, our commitment, our nonviolent action, and our sacred honor.

With blessings of freedom and community,

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center
6711 Lincoln Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19119
United States

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why so much cynicism?

An Ethical Musings' reader recently inquired: Why do Americans find it so difficult to have faith in the foundations of their community life, locally and nationally? Since 1960, perhaps even earlier, Americans increasingly regard the foundations of community life – both its values and institutions – with doubt and cynicism. Why is that?

First, people now have more awareness of one another's failings and the fallibility of institutions. Some of this awareness is attributable to reporters and others in the public square who have found that often the most effective way to compete for the public's attention is to disclose the juicy dirt. In the absence of hard evidence, smoke, allegedly indicating the presence of evil doing, suffices. The unending 24/7 news cycle has accelerated that competition as has a growing preference for and dependence upon the internet. At some point, this awareness will plateau – people are not entirely fallible.

Second, people are now less connected with one another. For several reasons community is waning, as Robert Putnam meticulously document in his book, Bowling Alone. In the early part of the twentieth century, an evening's entertainment often consisted of spending time with family or friends. In the midst of playing games, participating in civic organizations, and other activities, people interacted. Those interactions created social capital, expressed in more widely shared values, mutual respect that transcended differences, and commitment to communal institutions.

Third, US citizens (any the citizens of other developed nations) are often caught in the grip of two conflicting ideals. On the one hand, they want to believe in individual rights and freedoms. They resent what they perceive as growing government regulation of life and the taxes required to fund that regulation.

On the other hand, most people want the assurances and security that government regulation and services provide. Food, whether purchased in a restaurant or store, should be safe, perhaps even nutritious, as well as produced and packaged in a way that minimizes hazards to those involved, respects the environment, etc. More generally, the warning of caveat emptor (buyer beware) seems less reasonable when dealing with products that can endanger life and about which few consumers will reasonably have any expertise. Similarly, most consumers, employees, and citizens expect government to keep them safe from known carcinogens, protect them from criminals, ensure transportation safety, and provide other basic services.

Independently examining each element of government regulation or service tends to result in an appreciation for the bulk of what government provides, inherently creating a tension with the ideal of individual autonomy and freedom. Few genuine libertarians (a position that approaches anarchism) exist. In an era of heated rhetoric that clamors for our attention, it is easier to trash government and community than it is to advocate more nuanced, better-adjusted approaches to improving government regulation and services.

Fourth, contrary to widespread opinion, some community values have actually improved significantly in the last fifty years. For example, the US is a more just society that more fully (though still very incompletely!) respects the rights of women, people of color, LGBT persons, etc. Similarly, the US has made significant strides to provide a social safety net. (For previous Ethical Musings' posts on this theme, cf. The decline of violence, The U.S. social safety net, Justice for all, and Affirmative action.)

Yet this improved justice has come at a price: we often opt for easy over good, cheap over caring. Illustratively, the US has the largest percentage of people in prison. Prisoners are disproportionately black men, reflecting in some significant measure a legacy of racism, e.g., the penalties for using illegal drugs that African-Americans tend to choose are far more severe than are penalties for using illegal drugs preferred by Caucasians (cf. Ethical Musings Prison is not the answer) . Institutionalizing the mentally ill and disabled got them off the street, but at a high cost and unnecessary infringement of their freedom. The campaign to de-institutionalize them succeeded but failed to achieve its other key element, providing the outpatient care and services these persons need and deserve.

In other words, the assessment that Americans have an increased cynicism toward communal institutions and a diminished sharing of foundational values partially depends upon one's vantage point.

Finally, this is a transitional era. Old institutions are dissolving. New institutions are in their early stages, still in gestation, or not yet conceived. Humans are social animals. Transitions are inevitable but invariably difficult. The question is not whether we will have community institutions but the shape and character those community institutions will take.

For example, marriage is a basic (some might argue THE basic) human institution. Marriage has gone through many changes: polygamy, concubinage, arranged marriages, serial monogamy, and now an expanded understanding to include same-sex couples. Some of the change is good. No longer does secular law treat as the chattel of a man (religious laws, regrettably, frequently still regard women as chattel or at least inferior to men, though there are some hopeful signs that this is changing). Furthermore, secular law imposes safeguards on children's welfare, criminalizing abuse, child labor, neglect, etc. These are good changes (read some of Charles' Dickens stories if you think otherwise).

Some change has resulted in unintended negative consequences, e.g., the good of divorce that frees women from marriages that are empty, unfulfilling, or abusive has created a problem of fathers seeking to evade their parental responsibilities. Single parents, especially if a woman, are more likely to be poor; divorce can be harder on children than is a loveless marriage, raising questions about the extent to which society should reasonably expect parents to sacrifice personal happiness for the well-being of children.

Twitterized communications and a 24/7 news cycle favor polarization rather than the discussion of complex problems, slowing progress toward the compromises that new solutions entail. This polarization is evident in the federal government's inability to deal with core issues, e.g., the federal budget and presidential appointments.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the future. Our shared values are in flux, yet society still exhibits cohesion, perhaps more than it did in the 1970s and certainly more than it did in the 1860s. Our institutions are also in flux, but new ones will emerge because we, like all humans, are social animals and require communal institutions to survive.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Unintended consequences

Two apparently unrelated news reports caused me to think about healthcare in the US:

  1. Insurance companies that sell health insurance have increased their profits since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
  2. The Supreme Court has decided that narrowly held corporations such as the Hobby Lobby do not have to include contraception options in the healthcare insurance that the company offers its employees when such contraception violates the owners' religious beliefs.

Obamacare is good for business, according to John Cassidy ("Why Can't the Haters See Obamacare is Good for Business?" Fortune, May 1, 2014, p. 72). Cassidy eviscerates critics who argue that the healthcare legislation will hurt small business. He observes that healthcare stocks, which comprise a sixth of the US economy, are up sharply over the last five years and that 26.6 million of the nation's 27.2 million small businesses employ fewer than 20 people. Thus, the healthcare law actually works to the advantage of these businesses, removing an existing incentive for small business employees to seek a job with a larger employer in order to obtain healthcare insurance.

Administrative costs total in excess of 25% of US spending on healthcare. Providers spend enormous amounts to bill insurers, each of which has its own forms, policies, reimbursement rates, etc. I'm not at all surprised that expanding the number of insured persons has resulted in a significant increase in insurance company (as well as other healthcare related company) profits. Some financial managers now regard insurance company stocks as attractive investments. Dramatically reducing administrative overhead by replacing the current hodge-podge of insurance schemes with a national healthcare plan would save money, even if the national scheme had widespread inefficiencies.

Allowing corporations, such as Hobby Lobby, to tailor the healthcare coverage that it offers to its employees reflects the needless clash between religious freedom and non-discriminatory employment policies that the lack of a national healthcare scheme creates. Employees should not have to choose whether to work for a company or organization based on the types of healthcare that the organization regards as moral. Pending court challenges by Roman Catholic organizations that do want to pay for birth control, abortion, and other medical procedures to which they object are also part of this problem.

Individuals reasonably deserve the freedom to decide for themselves what healthcare they deem moral. This is a personal choice. A person who does not want a blood transfusion on religious grounds (and there are religious groups that view blood transfusions as immoral) should not have the prerogative of de facto coercing his/her employees to subscribe to the same view by establishing a company policy that the company will not pay for healthcare insurance that covers blood transfusions.

Establishing a national healthcare system avoids this problem. The government would pay for coverage (of course, taxpayers will pay indirectly for healthcare through their taxes, not unlike the current approach in which healthcare funding comes from taxes, insurance, and private payments). Then individuals would decide what healthcare they personally want. Such a system would appropriately separate employment decisions from healthcare decisions.

Until that happens, Hobby Lobby and other discriminatory businesses should not anticipate doing business with me.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Musings about the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July—Independence Day—is not only a national holiday but also a feast day observed in our Episcopal liturgical calendar. The newly formed Episcopal Church included the feast in its 1786 prayer book and then omitted it in 1789. The change occurred upon the recommendation of Bishop William White. He contended that former loyalists, who constituted the main obstacle to the Episcopal Church growing, found the feast objectionable. The 1929 Book of Common Prayer restored Independence Day as a feast. That history suggests three lines of thought.

First, the inclusion, omission, and re-inclusion of Independence Day in the liturgical calendar should warn against equating nationalism and Christianity. For its first century and a half, Episcopalians viewed loyalty to Christ and not the nation as paramount.

Today, perhaps much less than in 1786, the United States is not part of Christendom (if one presumes that Christendom still exists somewhere). The US is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and religiously diverse nation. Consequently, we should object, as did most of the nation's founders, to legislative efforts to establish Christian teachings or practices. No law can ban private prayer. Conversely, no law can require belief in God. Indeed, printing In God We Trust on US money seems patently hypocritical, as people are often more confident in the dollar's power than in God's power.

Second, notions of US exceptionalism—the idea that the US is the new Israel, a city founded upon a hill as a light to the nations, or a nation especially blessed by God—are incompatible with Christian inclusivity and justice. Paraphrasing the book of Acts God is no respecter of peoples or nations, loving all equally.

I proudly served the US Navy for over two decades, ready and willing to go into harm's way to defend our freedoms and way of life. However, I also knew that the US was neither the most just nor prosperous nation. The US has some admirable characteristics, but we can also learn from other nations. Viewing the US as a member of the global community, co-equal with the other members, best coheres with God's equal love for all. On Independence Day, we thus do well to give thanks for the goodness of this land and to seek God's wisdom and assistance in addressing our shortcomings and failures.

Similarly, placing a US flag adjacent to the altar generally sends a wrong message, tacitly implying that God somehow especially favors the US. I have had the US flag removed from the worship space of every congregation that I have served except one. In the military, confusing loyalty to God with loyalty to the nation is an ever-present danger. In my civilian parishes, my congregations have all included citizens from several nations. The one place in which I did not remove the flag was the US Naval Academy. There, as part of the recessional, midshipmen dipped the US flag before the altar dramatically symbolizing the priority of loyalty to God over nation.

Third, we appropriately reinterpret what we celebrate on Independence Day. Our reading of the Declaration of Independence illustrates the positive potential of this process. The well-known, rightly treasured expression that "all men are created equal" originally meant white, property-owning males are created equal. After much struggle, some of which continues even in the present, most Americans now interpret that phrase to mean that all people, regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, or creed are created equal. This new reading is so widely accepted that the historically ignorant often respond with surprised disbelief when informed of the phrase's original meaning.

In addition to struggles to end racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual discrimination, we now hear belated calls to end injustice against gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons. This struggle will require, like its predecessors, decades to complete fully but, with God's help, the arc of history bends inexorably and irreversibly toward justice. Ten years ago, only one state had legalized same-sex marriage. Laws in 20 states now permit same-sex marriage; court rulings are pending in seven more states. Sometime before 2020, same-sex marriage seems likely to become legal in all US jurisdictions.

Economic injustice is more elusive to define and rallying support to end it more difficult. Requirements that voters pay a poll tax in order to be eligible to vote replaced the prior requirement that eligible voters must own property. The poll tax—struck down by US courts as an unconstitutional attempt to limit voter eligibility—has subsequently given way to campaigns in which the winner is almost invariably the candidate who raises the most money. The recent primary defeat of the US House of Representatives Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R, VA), by an unknown and poorly funded Tea Party candidate is the notable exception to that generalization. Calls for racial justice by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the nation, mobilizing people on both sides of the issue; tellingly, his calls for economic justice were widely ignored and now largely forgotten.

Money does not assure happiness. Research indicates that people living in the US who earn more than $75,000 per year experience only marginal increases in their happiness when their income increases. However, people who earn less than $75,000 (and that is 60% plus of us) experience significant increases in happiness when income improves. In other words, money cannot make us happy, but a lack of money can keep one from having the resources to live a reasonably happy and good life.

A tension between the present and future in-breaking of God's kingdom on earth echoes throughout the New Testament. Unfortunately, when it comes to money, wealth, and power Christians individually and collectively too often emphasize a future rather than present focus. This tension is evident when one compares Matthew's better-known but probably later version of the Sermon on the Mount with Luke's presumably earlier version. Luke, for example, records Jesus taught that the hungry shall be satisfied (a call for economic justice!) whereas Matthew records Jesus taught that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (spiritualizing and thereby eviscerating the call for economic justice).

Justice delayed is not justice. Will we, as does Matthew's gospel, spiritualize Jesus' teachings and emphasize economic justice will only arrive with the fullness of the Kingdom? Alternatively, is God speaking to us through Luke's gospel, calling us to join in the struggle for justice for the least amongst us? Independence Day is an opportunity not only to celebrate progress toward equal dignity for all but also an excellent time to encourage progress toward equal opportunity for all in the pursuit of happiness.