What You Should Think About Poverty

October 15, 2008

“For the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty.”

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Almost forty-five years ago, the President of the United States declared a War on Poverty.  Like the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, that militant metaphor ultimately proved misleading and counterproductive.  Unlike the War on Drugs or the Global War on Terror, our nation showed a stunning lack of resolve in dealing with this issue.  As Red Scare propaganda crystallized into an ideology of free market fundamentalism, the War on Poverty was displaced by an agenda that might be characterized as a war on the impoverished.

At the heart of this is a form of political opportunism that demonizes large groups of people by focusing on exceptionally bad, exceptionally rare, conduct within that group.  Often it is children who pay the price.  The typical beneficiary of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a single mother who started her family with every intention of paternal involvement.  The scope of this need would be much reduced if there were no deadbeat dads.  Yet the political dialogue that killed AFDC was dominated by the hateful distortion holding that the program was nothing more than a meal ticket for “welfare queens” who became pregnant repeatedly for no other reason than pursuit of a government check.

Because of irrational hostility toward the very idea of welfare, this nation has traded a program that enabled poor mothers to focus their energies on parenting for a program that compels poor mothers to labor in unskilled jobs.  In some of the worst cases, child care expenses required to enable this makework approach outweigh the value of the work itself.  Even in the best cases, the policy change compounds the disadvantage of being born into poverty with the disadvantage of decreased parental involvement in the upbringing those children.

The present debate about immigration is similarly distorted.  The typical illegal immigrant is eager for honest work and reluctant to engage in criminal activity.  It is the lack of a viable alternative, not a preference for lawbreaking, that drives the illegal component of their activities.  Worse still, many politically vocal Americans are obsessed with the relatively rare phenomenon of “anchor babies.”  Their hatred for people who exploit our laws see their children born as U.S. citizens becomes an excuse for counterproductive malice in the framing of policies meant to govern the inevitable (and thoroughly useful) flow of foreign workers into our economy.

The theory capitalist extremists espouse is that “nanny state” largess somehow weakens our people and our economy.  The facts would beg to differ.  At the close of World War II, the average height of the Dutch had stagnated.  Growth dating back to a 19th century prosperity surge gave way to the devastation of brutal military occupation.  Yet generation by generation since, they have risen to become the tallest nation on Earth.  A major factor in the change was a body of social policy that insured no citizen of the Netherlands went hungry but for the choice to do so.

Progressive social minima, including universal health care and robust poverty relief, are not economic liabilities.  To the contrary, they provide economic stimulus on many levels.  In the most immediate sense, an uplift in public morale created by alleviation of domestic hunger, homelessness, and ailments is good for business.  So too is the increased productivity generated by direct beneficiaries of sensible welfare spending.  Coupled with a long term commitment to minimizing domestic deprivation, the intergenerational result is a markedly healthier, happier, and more productive national workforce.

This is not simply some theory crafted to manipulate voter behavior.  The Dutch example is the clearest of many.  Global happiness surveys routinely turn up the best results in Scandanavia.  I have a hunch those results are not on account of the weather.  Right wing protestations about the certain failure of the welfare state are soundly repudiated by its many real world successes.  Besides which, recent events should make as clear as day that cutthroat capitalists are in no position whatsoever to criticize the democracies of Western Europe in the arena of fiscal responsibility.

It may well be the case that individualism has, even deserves, a special place in American culture.  Yet this raises the question — what is truly more useful to the purpose of enabling American individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashion?  Is the entire answer nothing more than big guns and small taxes?  Might instead there be a wide range of constructive actions that can be taken to promote broad-based economic growth while giving our least fortunate citizens options they otherwise would be unlikely to experience?

The ideology of supply-side economics was evidently corrupt at first blush.  Yet it has taken thirty years of disastrous public policy, punctuated by events taking place just this year, to provide overwhelming hard evidence to support that conclusion.  For decades, some citizens upheld the private sector as intrinsically superior to the public sector, without any regard for technical specifics.  Those same people also insisted free markets were sacrosanct ideals that ought be held inviolate.  These beliefs went beyond “regardless of the cost” and to the extreme of “the idea that there is any price to be paid for this form of extremism is unthinkable.”

Of course, the price is enormous beyond words.  To many Americans, every homeless schizophrenic, every undernourished child, every undermedicated senior citizen, and every serious medical condition left untreated constitute a great failure.  To turn Stalin on his head, behind each of those statistics is a staggering number of personal tragedies.  Each of them is heartwrenching.  Most of them are preventable.  That we as a nation should eschew efforts to engage in that prevention is abominable.

Obviously there are limits to our resources.  Yet those resources are part of a dynamic system that thrives under sound stewardship.  This same system withers when abused or neglected.  Trickle down economics endorsed a philosophy of deliberate neglect and fostered an environment of rampant abuse.  An ideal replacement would be a paradigm that transcends all ideology.  Yet if the ideal is unattainable, the least we can do is formulate a replacement ideology that fully recognizes the lessons to be learned by the realities of social spending around the world.

Just as Republicans never held any monopoly on patriotism, they also hold no monopoly on promoting economic growth.  Their leaders are quick to speak of growth as a justification for even deeper descent into the bowels of voodoo economics, but their ideas have been shown to create a false sense of prosperity amidst a backdrop of enormous fundamental problems.  Refusal to address those growing problems over such a long span of time is a big factor contributing to the crisis our economy faces today.  If we are ever to get serious about eliminating American poverty, we must first transcend the poverty of ideas afflicting this nation for the past few decades.

Advertisements

What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.


What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.


What You Should Think About Fairness

July 28, 2008

“Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do men like Bill Gates make this country great?  Does this country make men like Bill Gates great?  Is Bill Gates a great man?  Hopefully even the Microsoft founder himself has matured to the point of understanding these are not at all simple questions.  Yet for many Americans, the analysis is painfully simple, “Bill Gates received a tremendous amount of personal income.  He has not been convicted of a major crime or implicated in a breach of traditional values.  Therefore, Bill Gates is a great man.”

The self-made tycoon is a popular American archetype.  It is so deeply woven into our culture that The Pursuit of Happiness was never questioned as the title for a biographical tale about the pursuit of riches.  It is so deeply woven into our public policy that few debates are not clouded by the assumption that investors are the alpha and omega of American economic activity.  The consequences for entrepreneurs and shareholders are weighed carefully in all matters, while the consequences for working families with no substantial investments are often dismissed as a distraction from the vital business of lowering taxes, promoting trade, subsidizing industry, etc.

It is fair to argue that the United States has experienced generally good economic progress in the last thirty years.  It is also fair to argue that a position of such eminence could have and should have been parleyed into much greater national gains.  However, the immensity of the global economy prevents any of these opinions from rising above the level of pontification.  I suppose the most honest assertion that approaches the level of fact would be to look at our history of growth and conclude, “it could have been worse, and it could have been better.”

Yet it does not seem at all fair to argue that entrepreneurs and investors were exclusively responsible for these gains.  Even with contemporary Wall Street flimflam — the argument that widespread participation in mutual funds imparts universal status on the special interests of investors — it remains the case that many hard-working Americans carry debts far larger than the value of any investment portfolio they may have accumulated.  Of those prepared for a comfortable retirement, many still find the best decades of their lives shaped much more by levels of earned income than by investment outcomes.

Thus it is that, for more than thirty years, four out of five Americans have been effectively shut out from participation in economic growth.  The theory of trickle down economics is soundly repudiated by the profound failure of any real wealth to actually trickle down.  Some might argue that this is because corrupt public officials have not really put these ideals to a true test.  How is that any different from the argument that human beings are “too greedy” to sustain an economic commune the size of a large nation?*  I dispute the idea that trickle down economics was a good thing in principle.  Yet even those who romanticize it must face the cold hard fact that it does not produce the intended results in practice.

Of course, this assumes the intended results did not involve confining economic growth so narrowly as to promote the emergence of a new American aristocracy.  Hereditary titles, uselessly large personal fortunes, social climbers jockeying for appointments — only a feudal tradition is lacking.  Perhaps that is actually a bad thing, considering the role noblesse oblige played in feudal life.  Our economic elites can purchase a different standard of justice, exert extraordinary political influence, and still have time to accumulate vast amounts of real estate for personal use while the nation’s homeless rate continues along an alarming increase.

If only 20% of our citizenry were actually involved in pushing the economy forward, the fact that the other 80% are prevented from enjoying the progress might be fair.  Yet that conclusion can only be reached by starting with the absurd assumption that labor, training, management, research, art, and so much more are irrelevant.  It credits executive leaders, financiers, and the idle rich with exclusive participation in the economic achievements of the past three decades.  Personal incomes in those areas have ballooned to a downright insane extent.

Rational evaluation forbids any conclusion about a failure of industry on the part of the American worker.  Employees are laboring more hours and making larger sacrifices for the very same economic rewards analogous jobs would provide a generation earlier.  The reality of the working American has changed for the worse.  Degradation of opportunity is ongoing.  The labor force continues to become more and more productive, yet it is the corporate elite and old money that continue to receive more and more rewards.

An optimist might view this through the lens of Twain.  Wall Street institutions play the part of Tom Sawyer, reaping the rewards of hard work that others are induced to perform for a pittance.  A darker perspective might be seen through Orwell’s eyes.  There the metaphor of the working class as Boxer remains apt.  Had the President’s plan to significantly privatize Social Security been implemented promptly after it was proposed, would the surge of geriatric poverty suggest the approach of the knacker’s wagon?  Perhaps being frozen out of an entire generation of economic progress is not that dramatic, but surely it is no joke either.

Most ironic in all of this is presence of low points where pinnacles were thought to be built up by trickle down policies.  With decades of growth concentrated in the hands of an economic elite, amazing achievements ought to have emerged from those beneficiaries.  Instead of solutions to energy problems clearly understood in the 1970s, we find parasitism Enron-style.  Philanthropy to promote science, education, and general welfare was expected to blossom from the fortunes supply-side tax cuts would create.  Statistically, this mechanism has also failed to ameliorate the ongoing concentration of American wealth.

Of couse, symbolically it has done much more.  Rare confluences of vision and kindess create a false impression regarding the extent to which this nation’s most fortunate citizens actually give back to the society that facilitated their success.  Just as the self-made tycoon archetype promotes the blatant misconception that America enjoys greater socioeconomic mobility than the societies of Western Europe (some of which actually have feudal traditions,) the high profile philanthropy of Microsoft’s tycoons whitewashes over both the destructive business practices that forged said enterprise and the relatively rare nature of non-token generosity amongst living American tycoons.

Perhaps Bill Gates is a great man.  Perhaps the chef who prepared his dinner the last time he ate out is a great man.  Perhaps the dishwasher who cleaned his plate after the meal is a great man.  Perhaps all three are great.  Whether your definition of greatness involves hard work or loyalty or ambition or talent, who would presume to judge the character, or foretell the destiny, of the dishwasher?  Yet one thing is for sure — decades economic dialogue dominated by supply-side thinking recognize only the worthiness of men like Bill Gates.  Those who work hard without either being born into great wealth or thriving in a cutthroat business environment have labored for thousands upon thousands of days without earning any real gains.

The premise that proposed reforms like universal health care or expanded educational grant programs are somehow unfair to people already able to pay their own way is absurd.  This absurdity comes from the childlike assumption that present conditions were the product of a fair process.  We can continue to practice politics like children, crossing our fingers and hoping that, starting now, there will be no more significant corruption in political life.  Alternatively, we can face the reality we inhabit like adults.  We can recognize what has been unfair in the past.  We can take action to shape a future that brings us closer to fairness.

Of course, progressive economic reforms are not just about promoting the fairness of social justice.  Millions upon millions of Americans would enjoy a real improvement to the quality of their lives as a result of policies that duly consider the merits of demand-side interests.  Everyone would be able to wake up in a society with improved public health and improved public morale.  Even investments would be uplifted as a heavily strained labor force is given greater opportunity for financial security and professional development.  The fundamental fairness of correcting for decades in which four out of five Americans were excluded from any real reward for their part in achieving real growth — consider that icing on the proverbial cake.

*For clarity’s sake, I continue to believe the “communism has never been given a fair shake” argument is legitimate.  The crucial difference between the chance trickle down actually had and any historical regimes employing the term “communism” is the matter of open vs. closed societies.  With free speech, a free press, and a political system that has at times been the envy of the world, our nation still was unable to make supply-side economics work for anyone without personal control over an abundant supply of capital.  When a similarly open society attempts true communism, then it can be said to have been put to a test comparable to the one trickle down economics has clearly failed.

What You Should Think About Organized Religion

December 25, 2007

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

–Jesus Christ

“It is impossible to prove a negative,” is a statement far from insightful. For example, “this essay is not written in the Klingon language,” is a negative statement that can be verified as well as any practical standard of proof would require. Proof of negative assertions becomes more problematic as discussions move from the specific to the general. “There are no polka-dotted swans,” is an eminently likely proposition. However, it is possible to remain reasonable while taking the position that the best available proof merely establishes that a polka-dotted swan is an extremely improbable phenomenon.

When it comes to belief in an omnipotent being, a negative position is even more difficult to prove. Not only is it plausible to argue that such a being could defy any efforts at detection, but there is even a case to be made that an omnipotent being would not be constrained by logic. For absolute atheists, these conditions are problematic. Of course, monotheists are challenged just as strongly by the inability to prove that there are not multiple omnipotent beings.  Then consider the challenges of proving that their specific concept of a supreme being is a generally accurate reflection of reality.

Some people reach their own conclusions about matters of the divine. Yet many more allow their beliefs to be shaped by cultural traditions or even the dogma of religious institutions. This can be extremely problematic. Among other things, the embrace of organized religion tends to promote an unhealthy sort of inflexibility. This often stems from the perception that beliefs promoted as ancient wisdom are largely consistent with actual ancient beliefs. Yet is that perception justified?

Never mind variations in the content of sacred literature from one era or even one century to the next. Applications of religious thought consistently change to remain compatible with underlying social conditions. Excessive delay in this process simply results in a popular movement away from old faiths in order to embrace younger traditions. An honest study of religious history turns up all manner of examples where a faith that failed to speak to the great questions of the day yielded popular support to new spiritual movements eager to address those questions.

Even within a particular faith, there may be tremendous change over time. In the Middle Ages, Christian organizations actually ran brothels, not to mention encouraging priests to marry. It was only after being challenged on the practice of selling indulgences, an issue that helped bring about the Protestant Reformation, that the Holy See sought to demand chastity among all orders of clergy. Up to and during the American Civil War, some Protestant churches taught that God had ordained white hegemony and black slavery. Today some of those same pulpits are used to advance the argument that God demands equal treatment for all races.

Secular thinkers sometimes unfairly criticize religion for being unable to change with the times. Science may have produced flawed understandings of reality, but it does so in a context of focusing on empirical evidence. Setting aside pseudoscience like global warming denial or “creation science,” real science is driven to change not by passions or politics, but by data that satisfies reasonable standards of proof. Even wild new ideas can be quickly adopted by science if they can be supported by hard evidence.

By contrast, social change and personal whims are the driving forces behind change in religious thought. The popularity of a belief about the natural world is not a factor in how much it is accepted by scientists. In recent history, attitudes about race, gender, and sexual preference have, and continue to, bring about change in religious practices and teachings. Looking back further, changing attitudes about government, sexuality, violence, and a host of other issues have left their mark on the ways of modern faiths.

Nearly all adherents to the teachings of an organized faith arrived at those beliefs by traveling one of two paths. The most common is inheritance. Early in life, perhaps even from infancy, a person may become immersed in rituals and indoctrinated in religious teachings. Rather than forming the capacity for sound judgement then pursuing answers to questions of theology and morality, a personal attachment to a particular set of answers is firmly imprinted on pliable young minds.

In other instances, faith is the product of experiences that coincide with an intense episode of personal distress. As emotions impair rational judgement, the wholehearted embrace of a new worldview (not to mention entering a new social circle,) can provide relief and support in a time of crisis. Sometimes the mechanism resembles a one-two punch as childhood immersion in a specific organized faith produces a sense of comfort in religious association that is reinforced by subsequent refuge provided by a religious rebirth.

Religious belief is not a uniformly pernicious influence. It provides real comfort to real people facing real problems. It can provide a sense of togetherness in times of increasing individuality and social isolation. It may even increase the intensity of the good feelings associated with personal triumphs or significant milestones in life. Perhaps other institutions and practices could serve these same needs. Yet it is hard to argue that, if all religious practice suddenly ceased, nothing worthwhile would be lost to humanity

Of course, religious belief is not a uniformly positive influence either. Different faiths offer different teachings. Many of these faiths teach that others are false. In some instances, religious leaders actively promote hatred of human beings associated with different faiths. In fact, the condemnation of difference may even involve extremely violent struggles over relatively subtle theological distinctions. When a difference of opinion emerges among scientific thinkers, observation and analysis are decisive. When a difference of opinion emerges among religious thinkers, sheer force of advocacy is the decisive factor, as empirical evidence is rarely available (and often marginalized when it is available.)

A measure of faith can be useful as an alternative to being consumed by the complexities of resolving all moral issues or surrendering to nihilism. Yet faith is counterproductive to the degree that it straightjackets ethical thought in hallowed, yet ultimately arbitrary, human doctrines. Perhaps no capacity for belief is more important than the capacity to believe in one’s own ability to have faith in erroneous conclusions. Whether the context is secular or religious, that capacity is essential to remaining in touch with reality and adapting to new information as personal growth, new experiences, and fresh discoveries provide access to increased knowledge.

In theory, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmless as participation in a social club. In practice, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmful as involvement with the most destructive political movements. If you are involved in such a faith, and you manage to take away from it only messages of love, peace, goodwill, tolerance, humility, etc.; then you may benefit from that involvement. Yet if such involvement also generates ill will toward your fellow human beings, compelling reason exists to recognize the flaws of any teachings or practices that add fuel to the fires of hatred.


What You Should Think About Santa Claus

December 21, 2007

“There are three stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus.”

–Bob Phillips

This holiday season, with its roots in pagan festivals of goodwill, has long been a time of popular merriment and a celebration of charity. The contrast with normalcy seems to grow sharper as time marches forward. One widespread custom of the season involves giving gifts to children in the context of a particular narrative. According to this story, a jolly old man, generally inclined to keep to himself, ventures forth from his home to roam the world, giving toys and treats to children of all ages. These rewards are bestowed based not on industriousness or inheritance, but simply for being well-behaved.

It is surprising such an overtly anti-capitalist icon should have weathered the rhetorical storms of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, etc. As if this flagrant disrespect for the importance of profit were not enough, ol’ St. Nick flaunts his politics by wearing more red than Hugo Chavez! It would take great magic to explain how this selfless devotion to redistributing material wealth has not made Santa Claus public enemy number one in the eyes of pundits and politicians preaching (if so rarely adhering to) an agenda of economic conservatism.

In spite of his annual spree of charity, carried out through countless acts of trespass, Santa Claus remains a beloved public figure. Perhaps the man is indeed blessed with vast supernatural powers. Yet if that were the case, one would think he might take action to preserve the dwindling ice cap that has so long been home to him and his elves. It may instead be that there is another explanation for all this. Perhaps it is simply a fact that even truly nasty grown-ups like Dick Cheney or Bill O’Reilly were once children too. As unlikely as it seems, I am inclined to believe that explanation.

They may show precious few signs of humanity in the 21st century, but I believe even the most thorough of investigations would not turn up an extraordinary origin for the great deceivers of our time. Thus it stands to reason that, in some seemingly (though not actually) simpler decade, they also partook of a common American experience — sitting on some department store Santa’s lap, listing their material desires, then arising early Christmas day to see what bounty had appeared under the tree for them.

It could be that memories of such personal bliss explain why so many of the loudest voices in the right wing of American politics do not assail Santa as they do pretty much any other public figure who distributes material reward without regard to inheritance, investment, or employment situations. It is not as if they have a generalized concern for children. Abolishing the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, giving the “market forces” shrug to the decline of health care availability for children in working class families, demanding single parents always favor seeking a paycheck over dedication to home life — are these the deeds of people who are truly concerned about the welfare of America’s children?

No doubt there is a place in society for personal profit. Some people are obsessed with it, and a few of those are more constructive than destructive in pursuit of its accumulation. Most people have some interest in it and would maintain that interest even if active wealth procurement were not perceived as a requirement for continued survival. Just as Santa can only provide such largess due to the labor of countless elves, paternalistic policies are only effective in the context of a productive society.

Yet in that context a wide range of paternalistic policies are both practical and effective. It may be the case that modern civilization does not provide us with the means to make goodwill and charity the primary focus on human endeavors. Yet it is also the case that modern civilization does provide us with the means to spread goodwill and provide charity at levels that would profoundly improve quality of life throughout society. Many would resist such efforts out of principle . . . but just what sort of principles justify organizing a national economy around cutthroat competition, deliberately rolling back social advances that alleviate human misery?

When he was just establishing a place for himself in American civic life, a famous figure who would eventually be mistaken for a kindly old man exercised eloquence in explanation of such beliefs. In 1964 Ronald Reagan launched his own political career be speaking on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s Presidential bid.  In the speech now known as “A Time for Choosing” The Great Communicator said, “This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

His grand entrance into the realm of American political theater saw Reagan both displaying and promoting a warped view of history. The idea behind the American revolution was not that government ought to be reduced for reduction’s sake. It was not that government was an enemy of peace or prosperity or happiness. It was that government ought to flow from the will of the people rather than the power of unelected aristocrats. Self-government is not at all about reducing government services, but instead it involves a commitment to government that does not enable public officials and their associates to personally loot the wealth of the nation.

Deep down, most people know that there is a time and a place for Santa Claus. Likewise, few people are so blinded by ideology that they actually believe it would be wise to privatize the sidewalks or abandon poor orphans to the elements. We may do well not to imprison the unreformed Scrooges among us. Yet to constantly endorse their demands for less corporate taxation, less regulation of workplace conditions, less environmental protection, less public support for education, etc. — to do that is to oppose the immense social good obtained by permitting kindness and charity to influence public policy.


What You Should Think About Religious Freedom

December 10, 2007

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

–Sinclair Lewis

Last week I happened to catch Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in politics. As a contender in a partisan primary election, it came as no surprise that his message was carefully tailored to maximize its appeal to 21st century Republican voters. His embrace of diversity was not so broad that it included agnostics and atheists. Yet there seemed to be some sort of attempt to establish a theme following from the peculiar utterance, “there can be no religion without freedom and no freedom without religion.”

In the spirit of the season, I suppose Governor Romney should be granted a measure of charity. It could be said that religious practices dictated by force of law or other threat are not authentic. Given the choice between being crippled by stretching on the rack or professing my devotion to the faith of Torquemada, I suspect I would muster an articulate and convincing plea for spiritual salvation. Yet the devotion in those words would not reflect a devotion in my heart.

Christian practices supplanted pagan traditions in many parts of the Old World as a direct result of authorities wielding force to compel participation. Secret reverence for suppressed deities, nature spirits, etc. provides evidence that generations often passed between the forced imposition of Christianity on a community and widespread sincere belief in Christian doctrine. The underground survival of pagan practices, even in the face of the original witch hunts, reveals this to be the case.

Yet cannot sincere faith continue even where religious practices are forbidden? Are Chinese Christians, conducting informal services in private homes (much like the earliest generations of ancient Christians) not true believers? Wherever there is a state-mandated religion, or even state-mandated atheism, divergence from compulsory faith may be a genuine manifestation of faith. Religious practice might not be as easy or comfortable (or materially lavish) as it would otherwise be. Yet I believe some great figures in religious history would question if easy comfortable religious practice was truly better than adherence to a challenged faith.

For that matter, what is to be said about Christians in “liberated” Iraq? Saddam Hussein was a bona fide tyrant designated by some American leaders as a threat worthy of much more attention and resources than Osama bin Laden. Yet under Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Christian minority peacefully coexisted with the Muslim majority. Christian churches were rarely vandalized, services generated little hostility, and the Vice President of Iraq took Communion on a regular basis. Now, years after George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” there are few parts of Iraq where civilians are not sure to draw persecution for overtly Christian activities.

The plight of Iraqi Christians provides us with a useful lens for scrutinizing both Mitt Romney’s remark and Republican rhetoric in general. Clearly “freedom” is not as simple a concept as it is made to seem by most political speech today. Saddam Hussein did use brutal methods, including techniques borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s playbook, to govern a nation harboring powerful cultural rifts between various Iraqi groups. Even so, he made good on a commitment to religious freedom in a part of the world where tolerance for other faiths is in short supply.

Perhaps there can be no genuine religious devotion without the freedom to choose the particulars of faith. Yet clearly religion can thrive in the general absence of civil or economic liberties. To suggest otherwise seems to reveal a failure to understand the nature of freedom, if not also the nature of religion. Of course, the flip side of Governor Romney’s remark is an even more dangerous misunderstanding. In declaring that there could be no freedom without religion, he reinforces the bogus Red Scare narrative holding that godlessness is a stepping stone to totalitarian governance.

There is much debate over the true religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like the Freemasonry that served as a social network for many of them, individually they at least endorsed the existence of a higher power. In some instances this can be connected with strict observance of the practices of a particular sect. Yet for most of those hallowed men, no particular church attendance or other ritual behavior was regarded as a prerequisite to a life of virtue.

Most of them knew full well that great evil could be done in the name of Christ. Puritans and other radicals, not at all unlike modern Afghani Taliban, managed to set bad examples that went beyond the torture and murder of alleged “witches.” This nation was forged with keen sensitivity to the excesses of religious zeal and the pitfalls of intractable dogma propagated from the pulpit. Most of the Founding Fathers also followed suit with other Enlightenment thinkers in recognizing that great good can be done based on moral beliefs that exist independently of religious teaching.

Collectively, their words and their deeds both reveal the hope that this nation might be full of good acts and benefit from good leadership as a function of rational processes rooted in philosophy and science, not theology and scripture. After all, if a religious teaching illuminates a genuine moral lesson, then that lesson will stand on its own merits without any need for mortals to invoke the purported stance of deities on the subject. This reasonable restriction on moral thinking only seems weak or otherwise inferior to people who cannot overcome an attachment to unreasonable beliefs.

It is no more sensible to translate a personal incapacity to recognize achievements in the field of non-religious thinking on morality into disbelief in their usefulness than it would be to translate a personal incapacity to understand calculus into disbelief in the usefulness of rocket science. We may thrive without being a nation of philosophers just as we thrive without being a nation of mathematicians. Yet when the value of secular morality is rejected outright, the possibility of worthwhile social progress is also rejected. Non-religious thinking on morality is the only way any diverse society can go forward without instituting a state religion.

Even if one were so senseless as to simply eliminate or forcibly convert the millions of Americans do not view Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind, Christianity itself is not a monolithic entity. Some sects really would ban alcohol, music, dancing, immodest attire, etc. Others impose strictures like a prohibition against military service or a refusal to acknowledge the dissolution of marriages. Many of the moral lessons dear to the hearts of some Christians are at odds with moral lessons dear to the hearts of other Christians.

In any working pluralist society, secular moral reasoning provides a common ground where no conclusion is cast aside but that it fails to make good sense in universal terms. In the late 18th century, among many different communities founded by European religious outcasts, it was especially clear that disaster would follow from letting articles of faith drive a national agenda. Our fundamental principle of religious freedom is as much a concession to practical reality as the embrace of a noble principle. A significant element of America’s success story is this independence of governance from ecclesiastical pressures.

The circumstances that drove Governor Romney to that particular speech paint a picture of this invaluable national asset under assault. For too long, to great excess, America’s political leaders have permitted faith and governance to become muddled in the public life. Countless citizens fail in their civic duty by embracing a falsified religious duty to evaluate candidates on religious grounds. This may be less a de jure violation of the 1st Amendment than President Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, but the nebulous trend is clearly a greater threat to authentic Constitutional governance.

If the Bible has any place in civic discourse, perhaps it should begin with these words attributed to Jesus himself — “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Many centuries before the Revolutionary War, there was a sensible (and to most Christians sacrosanct) call for separation between civic life and religious life. Like all religious conclusions worthy of advancing in political arenas, this belief stands strongly even when supported exclusively by secular arguments.

A religious commitment is innately a personal commitment. Within communities of faith, it may well also be a public commitment. Beyond communities of faith, in a broader society where many different faiths must coexist (ideally in peace,) dedication to religious teachings must give way to government action framed by enlightened secular moral thinking. By all means, do your best to live your private life and your church life as your faith demands. Insofar as you may have an American political life, your nation demands reason, neither supported nor encumbered by religion, should guide your words and deeds.