Thursday, January 30, 2014

Economic inequality


Oxfam has recently released a new briefing on economic inequality around the world that is well worth perusing. Among the Oxfam findings of particular note are:

• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
Source: ‘Global Wealth Report 2013’.Zurich: Credit Suisse

• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

The Oxfam report traces the correlations between, on the one hand, financial deregulation, declining marginal tax rates, and parental socio-economic level and, on the other hand, increasing economic inequality. The data speaks loudly and clearly: the wealthy are using their influence national political systems to give them preferential treatment.

Oxfam tied the release of its briefing paper to coincide with the annual summit of world economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Policies that Oxfam believes will contribute to improved economic equality and opportunity include:

• Cracking down on financial secrecy and tax dodging;

• Redistributive transfers; and strengthening of social protection schemes;

• Investment in universal access to healthcare and education;

• Progressive taxation;

• Strengthening wage floors and worker rights;

• Removing the barriers to equal rights and opportunities for women.

Those recommendations are consistent with the Christian economic agenda that I have commended in previous Ethical Musings posts. Saying that one is a Christian is, in most parts of the world, easy and cost-free. Acting like a Christian is the real test of one's spiritual identity.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Nothing new under the sun?


The week between Christmas and New Year's, I spent some of time digitally scanning 35mm slides that my father-in-law had taken over the course of about forty-years. The slides recorded his life's journey. They recorded places to which he had travelled, people he had known, his well-loved family, and his ministry. While I processed the slides, my thoughts drifted not only over the events and people he photographed but also over how dramatically technology has changed in the last two centuries.

Before the Civil War, photography was rare; in the latter half of the nineteenth century, photography remained too difficult and expensive for most amateurs; professionals took the preponderance of photographs. Then, inventive individuals such as George Eastman, founder of Kodak, lowered the cost and simplified the process. Photography soared in affordability and popularity.

Today, film is increasingly difficult to obtain. The Kodak Corporation is struggling to survive. Cameras are almost all digital; stand-alone cameras are increasingly rare as people use cameras built into a cellphone, tablet, or other device. A replacement bulb for a 35mm slide projector – if you can find one – is costly. A few of the sales clerks from whom I sought information about scanners with which to digitize 35mm slides did not know what a 35mmn slide was. Unsurprisingly, I found more information and better prices for slide scanners on the internet.

So, is the book of Ecclesiastes wrong? Are there some new things under the sun?

People take and cherish photographs because human memories are fallible and incomplete. Furthermore, neuroscientists have demonstrated that human memory actually degrades over time. Yet, past moments and the memories of those moments define who I am, what I have done, and help me to recall people I love or who are important to me.

Before photography, people treasured other mementos, items such as a painted portrait, lock of hair, article of clothing, or piece of furniture. People sometimes passed mementos from one generation to the next as a means of preserving their identity and heritage. With the advent of photography, such keepsakes became increasingly rare. Photographs are more affordable, transportable, and easier to share. Perhaps most important, photographs offer a fuller, richer, way to recall precious memories.

This desire to cherish our links with the past seems constant. Technology has changed, but the underlying human motivation to hold on to cherished memories that shape and inform one's identity has remained constant. This is not new.

The anamnesis – the part of the Eucharistic prayer that recalls Jesus' life, death, and resurrection – is important precisely because it preserves our link with Jesus. We have no photographs of Jesus and no keepsakes (unless one accepts as genuine alleged artifacts of the true cross, the shroud of Turin, or other such items of highly dubious historicity). Our connection to Jesus is verbal, perhaps fittingly so given the gospel of John's portrayal of Jesus as the Word of God.

When Jesus seems distant, or unreal, the anamnesis (or, remembrance) that informs and shapes our Christian identity can helpfully center on the life of a saint, i.e., a person in whose life we, or at least some Christians, have seen or heard God's word en-fleshed. In our remembrance, we can experience anew God's presence and love, exactly as recalling other cherished memories enables us to renew that part of our identity and heritage.

My father-in-law died a decade ago. His widow thinks that my digitizing his 35mm slides would have delighted him because the digital images are so much easier to store, see, and share than are his antiquated and deteriorating 35mm slides.

I wonder if these changes are portents of the future. The information age offers hope that the next generation can live more fully at a lower environmental cost. Humans will still need shelter, clothes, furniture, and kitchens. But the cherished possessions that make us who we are – art, music, books, entertainment, memories, and much more – will all be digital, enabling people to live in smaller yet more comfortable domiciles. Perhaps a season of twenty-first century content focused humans will follow the twentieth century's season of conspicuous consumption. This is just one sign of hope that I discern for our creating a better, greener, richer, and more peaceful world.

As the 2014 begins, many of us make resolutions of things we want to do (or not do!) this year. Our memories can transform life's moments from disconnected dots into a ray, a trajectory anchored by birth at one end. What is the trajectory of your life, i.e., toward what (or whom) is your life aimed? In other words, what is your spiritual anamnesis?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scrapping the nuclear triad


During the Cold War, United States nuclear deterrence rested upon a triad of delivery systems: land based missiles, bombers, and sea launched missiles. Strategists argued that the triad of delivery systems reduced the likelihood of a nuclear first strike against the U.S. because no foe (which, for all practical purposes meant the Soviet Union) could confidently eliminate all three delivery systems, leaving the foe vulnerable to retaliation.

Today, there is no longer any good justification for continuing to spend billions on the triad of delivery systems. The Soviet Union is gone; the Cold War has ended. Russia's military prowess is substantially less than that of the former Soviet Union. No other nation poses an existential nuclear threat, i.e., able to destroy the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Air Force missile officers suffer from low morale, poor career advancement in an organization dominated by pilots, and numerous, high visibility disciplinary problems. Recent scandals have included senior officers fired for excessive gambling about which they lied, drunkenness, and launch officers cheating on proficiency exams.

I wonder if bomber pilots and crews in the Strategic Air Command, the command responsible for nuclear deterrence, experience some of the same morale, career, and disciplinary problems as their peers in the missile command.

Any nuclear threat that the United States faces today is substantially less than it was in the 1960s. A massive, expensive triad of nuclear delivery systems will not deter a rogue state (e.g., North Korea, which, to date, has failed in its effort to develop a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the lower forty-eight states) or terrorist organization from initiating a nuclear strike. Furthermore, any one leg of the triad has more than enough capability to prevail against any rogue state; nuclear retaliation against a non-state terror group is highly problematic because most of these groups do not have a meaningful target to attack.

The right move, it seems painfully apparent in this age of huge federal deficits and crying social needs, is to eliminate two legs of the nuclear triad, the land based missiles and bombers. In fact, the U.S. Navy sometimes argued that only its submarine launched missiles were essential because the Soviet Union could not locate and destroy the subs (aka boomers) in a first strike. Conversely, land based missiles are more vulnerable to a first strike. The abortive program to launch these missiles from mobile railcars was an effort to eliminate or reduce that vulnerability. Bombers, which fly more slowly than missiles, are vulnerable before launch and subject after launch to intercept by both enemy aircraft and missiles. The Navy's argument for the invulnerability of submarine launch systems is even more persuasive today than twenty years ago.

The United States has legitimate self-defense requirements. A nuclear triad, no matter how important it once may have been, no longer has a military defensible role and is therefore bad policy and immoral. God calls us to beat our swords into plows. Starting with weapons and weapons systems that the collapse of the Soviet Union has made obsolete is an easy and imminently reasonable starting point.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jesus, Lamb of God


"Lamb of God" and "saved by the blood of the Lamb" are two of many traditional Christian metaphors, rooted in biblical imagery, which many contemporary Christians find troubling, perhaps even disturbing.

The difficulty emanates from the orthodox Christian teaching that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive human sin. Theological conceptions of this use ideas including atoning sacrifice, expiation, and propitiation to explain this concept. Although the various explanations have significant, sometimes mutually exclusive ideas, all of the explanations presume that God can forgive human sin only in conjunction with a blood sacrifice. Since the sacrifice must be without blemish (i.e., without sin), and only God is perfect, only God (or God's son) can satisfy the requirement. This explanation justifies, even necessitates, Jesus' death on the cross.

Thankfully, contemporary Christian theologians increasingly find such ideas very troubling. Those traditional concepts depict God as either a masochist (choosing to suffer) or abusive parent (inflicting the suffering on God's son). Both options are spiritually and morally repugnant.

In my sermon yesterday, I offer an alternative interpretation of the metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God, an interpretation rooted in the metaphor itself while preserving a faithful continuity with the Christian tradition (Read more).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rethinking retirement - part 2


The concept of retirement is completely absent from the Bible, which is unsurprising because the most recent portion of the Bible dates back almost two millennia. The Bible does emphasize that (1) people should be productive and not idle, (2) laborers deserve adequate compensation, and (3) the elderly merit respect. Those three principles have implications for the idea of retirement.

First, the prospect of an extended period of leisure – a decade or even several decades – is widely unpopular. Most people do not savor the idea of a life spent playing golf, cards, or endlessly pursuing another hobby or sport. This approach to retirement is deservedly as unpopular as is the prospect of a heaven in which people spend eternity singing hymns or playing a harp.

Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume believed that the good life required passion: "Now if life, without passion, must be altogether insipid and tiresome; let a man suppose that he has full power of modelling his own disposition, and let him deliberate what appetite or desire he would choose for the foundation of his happiness and enjoyment." (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, p. 66)

Hume was certainly not a Christian. Yet his insight into the importance of passion for the well-lived life applies to both time spent in the workforce and in retirement. Rethinking retirement, for those able to afford it, entails conceptualizing life as a series of chapters. Some of those chapters may involve paid labor in the workforce; some of those chapters may involve volunteering to support non-profits (including religious organizations!) committed to making the world a better, more peaceful place.

Second, compensation for one's labor may be financial or psychic. However, labor always deserves fair compensation. One measure of fairness is whether full-time employment at that level of compensation allows a person to earn a living wage, i.e., an income that exceeds the poverty level, for him/herself and one or two others (e.g., children or a dependent parent – expecting all humans to earn their own way is unrealistic and immoral).

Persistently high levels of unemployment, large numbers of part-time jobs that prevent employees from qualifying for benefits, jobs that do not pay a living wage (for more on this, cf. Ethical Musings Taxpayers subsidize low wages and high profits), and growing economic inequality (cf. Ethical Musings Seeking economic wisdom and Economic inequality: Ideal vs. Actual) all indicate a broken economic system. The economic system needs structural changes to increase employment opportunities, to set wages at or above the level of a living wage, and to provide reasonable benefits for employees. Those changes may entail limiting retirement to the truly aged (e.g., those older than 75), redefining full-time employment as thirty or even twenty hours per week while limiting hourly and salaried workers to that number of hours, and raising prices to permit companies to pay adequate compensation. For example, instead of one physician or lawyer paid $500,000 why not employ seven who each earn $70,000? A $1 menu item at MacDonald's is no bargain when the employees supplement their wages with government assistance, experience the hopelessness of being stuck in a dead-end job, etc.

Third, respect for the elderly connotes no elderly person having to live in involuntary poverty. The broad trend away from corporate and government pensions means that we need to strengthen Social Security, in terms of both benefits paid and its financial underpinnings, a change easily affordable if the U.S. removed the current limit on earned income subject to the Social Security tax (cf. Ethical Musings Expand Social Security?).

I find this passage of Hume's particularly evocative: "A [person's] time, when well husbanded, is like a cultivated field, of which a few acres produce more of what is useful to life, than extensive provinces, even of the richest soil, when over-run with weeds and brambles." (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, p. 40)

If your life is like a cultivated stage, are you preparing the ground for sowing? Planting seeds? Tending and watering a growing crop? Ready for harvesting? What field(s) are producing the best (how would you define best?) crop?

Given that no metaphor is perfect, are different fields in your life at different stages? Which offers the greatest promise?

A retirement that consists of admiring the harvested crops offers little joy or promise of future increase. What then will you cultivate in however many years you may have after leaving paid employment?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rethinking retirement - part 1


Is retirement a concept whose time has come and gone?

Prior to the twentieth century, few people retired. Lives were shorter, people had less money, and pension schemes were non-existent. The affluent few could, and sometimes did, pursue a life of leisure from maturity onwards. Everybody else engaged in productive labor (generally unpaid for women) until death. The unemployed – whether unemployed because of ill health, disability, disinterest, or another reason – depended, after exhausting any meager savings that they might have had, upon their family's generosity or community charity to stay alive.

In the twentieth century, improved nutrition and medical care first in developed nations and then elsewhere has resulted in people living longer. Concurrently, agricultural and industrial technological advances created unprecedented wealth. The idea of a brief season of leisure (aka retirement) following a lifetime of hard work appealed had broad popular appeal. An additional benefit of workers retiring was to make room for the next generation of workers. Another benefit of retirement was that it allowed workers who, because of physical or mental limitations caused by health problems or age, were no longer as productive as in their prime to exit the workforce gracefully without facing abject poverty or life as a dependent, many times unwanted, of family members.

In the United States, the federal Social Security program, established in 1935, represented a radical break with the past. New Deal Democrats and their political allies believed that citizens, after a lifetime of productive labor, should enjoy economic security in their last few years without needing to work. Corporations and other enterprises similarly established pension schemes to aid in attracting and retaining good workers. Sold as an investment plan (i.e., benefits paid in will fund benefits that the payee subsequently receives), Social Security has in fact always been a wealth transfer scheme in which current workers fund the benefits of current retirees. This approach benefitted the elderly in 1935 and uses inflation-adjusted dollars received from workers to pay inflation-adjusted benefits.

The idea of retirement as a right and benefit to which workers are entitled spread quickly, becoming deeply embedded in popular thought and cultural norms. Great increases in economic productivity, workforce size (especially from women joining it), and wealth fueled higher expectations for retirement. Corporate and government pension schemes, many times integrated into labor agreements, legitimized and reinforced those ideas and expectations.

Then things changed. Longer life spans – a good thing – meant that most people would work a smaller percentage of their adult years and spend a larger number of years retired. Healthcare improvements meant that people lived longer often with diminished abilities but also skyrocketing costs. Economic growth slowed and the size of the workforce plateaued. A growing number of businesses and governments discovered that they had promised more in retirement benefits than they could possibly pay.

Despite unending encouragement for people to save for retirement, saving never gained sufficient traction; too many people spent what they earned, saving little or nothing for the future, further limiting the economy's capacity to grow. The collapse of the housing bubble popped a widespread illusion of wealth, leaving many homeowners owing more than their house was worth in the current market.

By the early part of the twenty-first century, the prospect of retirement appeared to be an increasingly unrealistic possibility for expanding numbers of Americans, even persons solidly situated in the middle-class, the very group among whom the dream of retirement had held the most allure. Economic inequality is creating a chasm, difficult if not impossible for most to bridge, between the affluent 20% and everybody else.

Today, years into a torpid economic recovery following the Great Recession of 2007-2008, unemployment remains frustratingly high. Numerous individuals, unable to find work, have exited the workforce when they really would prefer to continue working. Social Security is financially troubled, although fixes are known and not that painful (cf. Ethical Musings Expand Social Security?). Members of the middle and lower classes – the 80% – are postponing or cancelling their expectations of being able to retire. The goal of economic survival in old age is rapidly displacing hopes of comfort and leisure.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Living abundantly in the Information Age


Lincolnville is a small town on the coast of Maine through which I have passed many times. Perhaps the town's best-known personage is Eli Pariser, who grew up there but now lives in Brooklyn. Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn.org, wrote the 2011 New York Times' bestseller, The Filter Bubble (Penguin Books).

In The Filter Bubble, Pariser documents how Google, Facebook, and other internet companies shape the information they provide to users in ways that are transparent to the user, yet target that user's preferences as discerned by the company. For example, political liberals may not see search results from Google queries that deal with political conservatives or posts on in their news Facebook new feed from conservative friends.

The power of these internet companies is insidious and objectionable for three reasons. First, the companies collect data on users, often without users' permission, collate the data, and then utilize it for the company's benefit, which may include selling the data to third parties.

Second, users are oblivious to company's collecting and utilizing this data in large part because companies want to keep users ignorant. User agreements and privacy notices are part of this move by companies to keep users ignorant because the agreements and notices are so verbose and consist of nearly incomprehensible phrasing that companies cannot realistically expect most people to read, let alone understand, those notices.

Finally, as people increasingly become dependent upon the internet for information and entertainment, internet companies have tremendous, unprecedented power to shape the tastes and thoughts of users.

Clericalism connotes a form of religion dominated by the clergy. The clergy, in clericalism, perform the essential elements of the liturgy, teach authoritatively, and are the indispensable link between God and humans. One helpful corrective of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation in Christianity was the effort to end clericalism, a move that some Churches (e.g., the Orthodox and Roman Catholic) resisted and other Churches carried to an extreme (e.g., the Anabaptists and Quakers). A community may designate and authorize its clergy to lead liturgy, to facilitate spiritual growth, and to aid persons in developing a closer relationship with God. But that is very different from clericalism.

In the Information Age, internet companies that seek to operate without little or no visibility, collecting and benefitting from data on internet users, distinctively shaping the experience, entertainment, and information it provides to those users are arguable the modern analogue of clericalism, and, therefore, no more acceptable than clericalism.

An Information Age reformation might call for open source, non-profit organizations to develop and operate search engines and other internet services that scrupulously refuse to collect any data on users. Users who want to benefit from such services (e.g., a vendor's recommendations on other items that the user might enjoy) could write their software to query the user about her/his tastes and preferences, making the process of interrogation and collection open and explicit. Internet companies that did collect such information could then offer users a small discount or other perk if the user granted the company permission to use (or to sell) the data for other purposes. Again, this would ensure that the process is open and the user aware of its existence.

The abundant life is not synonymous with consumerism. The abundant life also presumes that individuals desire to exercise as much autonomy as possible. The current collection and use of data by internet companies violates both of those premises.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Predictions for 2014


Here are my predictions for 2014:

  • Five predictions remain unchanged from prior years: Iraq continues to be headed toward another dictatorship; Afghanistan will become increasingly dysfunctional, especially after the United States and NATO withdraw; global warming will become progressively worse (e.g., tides will rise, artic ice decrease, and violent storms increase in frequency and severity); no major war will begin; and the world will not end.
  • The U.S. economy, and European economies, will continue to improve, slowly clawing their way back from the recession of 2007-2008. The stock markets will have another good year, although not as strong as 2014 was.
  • The U.S. Congress will remain riven by partisanship but avoid a complete federal breakdown by reaching small compromises such as the one that resulted in their passing the first federal budget in years.
  • Digital media will continue to supplant other forms of media; more content will be free or low-cost, e.g., books will continue to migrate from paper to various electronic formats. People will rely more on cloud storage and less on storage that they own, signaling a continuing downward trend in personal computer purchases. Dissatisfaction with brief forms of communication (e.g., Twitter) will begin to develop as people seek richer, deeper relationships.
  • Roll out of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) will continue to experience significant problems but foes will fail to muster the votes required for repeal. Instead, small changes will incrementally move the U.S. toward some form of nationalized healthcare, although the nation will not achieve that goal for years.
  • States will continue to liberalize drug laws, especially those outlawing marijuana. Similarly, opposition to other hot-button social issues (abortion, capital punishment, and same sex marriage) will continue to diminish. Opposition to gun control will be the most controversial exception to that generalization.
  • Syrian President Assad will remain in power. U.S. efforts to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians will go nowhere, scuttled, if for no other reason, by Israel continuing to build settlements on disputed land.
  • Generalized spirituality will continue to attract adherents from traditional religious groups that remain tied to legacy buildings, doctrines, and practices.
  • Trends toward healthy living (e.g., eating local, slow food, popularity of pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, healthier eating, etc.) will continue, although some unhealthy trends (e.g., working too many hours and sleeping too little) will also continue. Overall, the balance will shift toward healthier living.
  • In the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, Republicans will keep control of the House of Representatives; Democrats will retain – barely – control of the Senate with the aid of independents and perhaps with the aid of the Vice President's vote.
  • And on a celebratory personal note, readership of Ethical Musings will grow by 50%, as it did in 2013!

Reviewing my 2014 predictions, and keeping in mind my observation in the previous post that predictions express one's beliefs about the world, I see my optimism and values reflected in several of my predictions.

What are your predictions for 2014? What do your predictions say about you and your worldview?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reviewing my predictions for 2013


In January 2013, I made these predictions (actual outcomes follow each prediction in bold):

·         Iraq will continue to move toward dictatorship and relations between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will become increasingly fractious. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will almost have ended; Afghanistan will remain a lawless, chaotic country. Pakistan will also become progressively more unstable. (Sadly, this prediction has proven correct; the trajectory for these countries remains unchanged in 2014.)
·         The U.S. will go over the fiscal cliff it faces at the end of 2012, and then Congress will raise taxes on the wealthiest 2% but largely leave taxes on the 98% at or near 2012 levels. Congress will cut Medicare and other entitlement programs, but not Social Security, to reduce spending and the deficit. (I was wrong: Congress did shut down the federal government in the autumn, but taxes remain largely unchanged. Sequestration reduced government spending but allowed Congress to avoid difficult, long-term financial decisions.)
·         The major stock market indices (Dow Jones, S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) will advance 8-10%. (I was wrong – hallelujah! The major stock indices rose more than 20%, resulting in a very good year for the affluent and for many people with money in retirement accounts.)
·         The U.S. economy will continue to improve – gradually. Going over the fiscal cliff will cause problems, but by the end of the year unemployment will again be declining. (I was right: the economy improved in 2014.)
·         The Supreme Court will strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act but duck the larger questions of whether states must recognize same-sex marriage to ensure equal protection and rights for all. (I was partially right. The Supreme Court decided the cases on narrow grounds, but appellate courts are slowly striking down as unconstitutional state laws and bans on same sex marriage.)
·         Church attendance and belief in God will continue to decline. (Unfortunately, I was right; belief continues to decline.)
·         Global warming will continue, as will an increased number of natural disasters caused by climate change. No major war will break out. The world will not end. (I was right on all of these predictions, though I would have happily been wrong about the continuation of global warming.)

Overall, I got five of seven predictions correct.

How accurate were your predictions for 2013?

Making predictions is more than a parlor game. Our predictions – what we think will happen in the future – influences many of the decisions that we will make, e.g., economic optimism may lead one to risk changing jobs, starting a business, or making riskier investments than one would otherwise choose. In the extreme, a person who predicts that the end of the world will come in the year ahead – and who actually believes that prediction – may sell all of her/his possessions to live on the proceeds and have time for more important activities (cf. Acts 4 for an example of this) or engage in other, similarly radical behaviors.

Reviewing the accuracy of one's predictions for the future is a useful reality check. Are your decisions, your choices, in line with reality or are you acting in ways that conflict with what really is?

Sometimes, acting in ways that conflict with what is can bring about helpful changes, e.g., this is one of the premises of positive thinking and of some approaches to behavioral therapy. Often, however, acting in ways that conflict with the way the world is sets one up for disappointment, heartbreak, or failure. In an extreme case, a person who acts on unrealistic predictions about the future exhibits psychotic behavior, i.e., behavior disconnected from reality.

In my next post, I'll boldly make some predictions for 2014.