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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In Defense of Religion

Like most of the world, Secularism is rising in America, while religious participation is sharply declining.  As more and more scientific principles explain what was once attributed to a creator, belief in God logically erodes.  It’s all too easy to see religion as merely quaint biblical myths and stories, comforting and palliative to believers, but dangerous when religious ideas are brought into the public square.  Or so the argument goes.  But there is another view.
For centuries, Judaeo Christian principles organized Western Civilization.  The old and new testaments served as blueprints for establishing social values and civic responsibilities, allowing for peaceful coexistence within stable, just societies.  The wisdom found in the bible served society well for two thousand years.
Clearly the idea of ethical monotheism was a great leap forward in mankind’s thinking—it replaced the self-centered animistic view of multiple totem gods with a universal God that required people to think beyond themselves.  The ideas of universality and of a non-corporeal being reflected abstract thinking that became essential for scientific reasoning.  Indeed, modern scientists, like Einstein, used God as a metaphorical guide when contemplating the principles of the universe.
Science and religion cover non overlapping spheres of human existence.  Science covers the physical sphere, and religion covers the social sphere, giving us rules for social conduct and ethics.  But science and religion intersect when explaining the creation of the universe.  The scientific view is that the universe was created from the inflation of a single infinitesimally small point containing all of the elements of the universe.  For our universe to coalesce and form, gravity and other forces needed to be so precise that it could not happen by chance … which sounds like the work of a creator. 
Scientists address the implication of a non-physical explanation for the creation of the universe with the multiverse theory.  In this theory universes are constantly being formed, indeed an infinite number of formations.  With an infinite number of formations our universe could happen by chance.  Importantly, however, there is no proof for the multiverse theory.  Like the religious view it remains an article of faith.
As America secularizes, the consequences to society are not favorable but predictable.  The concepts of sacred and profane are lost in a secular society as these concepts are embedded in religious beliefs.  Simply put, sacred thoughts and actions bring people closer to God; profane behavior does exactly the opposite.   
Without the restraint of the sacred, people can gravitate towards the profane of self-indulgence and self-gratification.   The trend towards the profane is evident – a coarsening of dialogue, immodesty, drug addiction and crime, alienation, and a breakdown of the nuclear family.  The profane has even entered the campaign for the highest office in the land in the form of Donald Trump. 
But what about the evil committed in the name of Christianity -- the medieval murders by Crusaders and the torture during the Inquisition?  This happened a long time ago, prior to the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  Obviously, Judaeo Christian leaders no longer advocate murder or torture.  True, some religious practitioners do not live up to religious teachings and act immorally or engage in cover-ups of evil deeds to protect religious institutions.   Yet there is an absolute standard to judge actions, and when evil is spotlighted and forced out of the shadows no religious figure is immune from religious condemnation.
For the non-religious, an absolute standard is replaced by an individual standard derived from reason and feeling.  The consequences of actions taken by countries and people un-moored from Judaeo Christian morality are devastating.   Many modern godless societies murdered and tortured millions upon millions of people – The Soviet Union, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and North Korea to name some.  In this country, atheists used reason to advocate for eugenics and forced sterilization of undesirables.
Yet religion remains a question mark for many because of religiously conservative stances on a number of contentious social issues.  In my next blog I will explore some of these hot button issues.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Real Income Gap

The Panama Papers are making waves-- detailing the extensive use of shell corporations and secret offshore accounts as tax havens for the wealthy. We’ve long suspected that the rich made their own rules, but now there is positive proof that hiding money and shirking taxes is widespread. All it takes is a shady lawyer to look the other way when creating a faux corporation in the name of a pet, or some other bogus entity, and a willing financial institution to open an account in the name of Fido.

The left and right look at this story with different eyes. The left sees another example of greedy, wealthy tax evaders manipulating the system to their own advantage. The right sees excessive taxation forcing people to find creative ways to reduce their tax burden. Whether this story is an indictment of the rich or of the tax system itself misses the most important element of the story, an idea that strikes at the heart of a democratic society.

Many of the wealthy hiding their financial assets are political leaders and government officials. These leaders are not just corrupt despots and dictators from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Swept up in the scandal are democratically elected leaders. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, and Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, are connected with the scandal, and we can be sure that they are not alone.

These are democratically elected leaders avoiding paying taxes on their amassed wealth, but we need to wonder how they amassed such wealth in the first place? Politicians serve the people; they earn relatively modest salaries of politicians, yet they retired as multimillionaires. In an indirect way this is the question Bernie Sanders asks Hillary Clinton when he questions the enormous speaking fees she garners for talks given to financial institutions.

Virtually all career politicians become multimillionaires over the course of their careers. Yet every political cycle they talk of their humble roots. They mingle with the public, attend fairs, eat at diners, ride subways, and shop at supermarkets. This is a far cry from their actual lives, lives of power and prestige, with endless access to information and connections, which is the foundation for influence and wealth building. Politicians live lives of privilege where rules that govern the rest of the country do not always apply to them.

Several years back “60 Minutes” did a piece on members of congress engaging in insider trading for profit. Insider trading is the buying and selling of stocks by corporate insiders who have non-public information that could affect the price of a stock. It is an illegal practice for which Martha Stewart went to jail. Yet congressman conveniently wrote themselves exemption rules under the guise that they have no corporate responsibilities. As they saw it, it’s perfectly legal for a congressman sitting on a healthcare committee to buy stock in a pharmaceutical company with the knowledge that Medicare was about to approve reimbursement for a drug made by that pharmaceutical company.

The most egregious example covered in the “60 Minutes” piece was that of a Congressman sitting on the House Financial Services Committee. In the days leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008 he was briefed by the Treasury Secretary and The Federal Reserve Chairman about the impending financial crisis. Literally the next day this Congressman bought stock options that would increase in value if stock prices went down. While, presumably, this Congressman was working to avert a financial crisis, he was privately betting on the economy cratering. He profited while ordinary Americans were losing their shirts.

No wonder the elected class is so despised and that this is the year of the outsider in politics. A tipping point has been reached, the middle class is fed up with politicians, immune from the anxieties of ordinary citizens, overlooking the needs of the ordinary citizen except during an election cycle when much is promised and little is delivered.  Bernie Sanders highlights the growing income gap between the rich and the middle class and speaks of a rigged economy that only benefits the wealthy. His target is billionaires and large corporations. Instead his target should be the crony politicians who write legislation for their own benefit and the benefit of large corporations that they have cozy relationships with. The economic system of free market capitalism is not broken. It is our political system that is broken.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Donald Trump: The FDR For The Blue Collar Worker

Whether by design or happenstance, Donald Trump’s risen as the new spokesman for the concerns of America’s long struggling, white middle class. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Trump's bigoted rhetoric is solely tied to white blue collar's attraction to Trump, either because they themselves are racist, or because increased racial diversity threatens whites who are no longer the racial majority in America. Racists groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis do indeed show up at Trump rallies, but they represent the fringe elements of society. Trump’s appeal to blue collar whites is far more nuanced than that.

White blue collar workers are angry; they see themselves as a marginalized group. The invisible class that political leaders ignored and let down. Until recently, political conversations centered on the issues facing the poor and minority groups, but offered little or nothing to address the challenges confronting working class whites who face significant economic hardships that are exacerbated by American factories closing and relocating overseas. Those managing to remain employed struggle to survive on wages that do not keep up with inflation due to long term trends of globalization and technological advances. For them the American dream has died. They see fewer opportunities for themselves and even fewer on the horizon for their children.

Socially they feel abandoned too. As America grows more secular, their religious and cultural views on gay marriage, abortion, and promiscuity are out of step. The shift in these values has happened so quickly that it’s created cognitive dissonance. The core values of a decent, moral society of the recent past are now seen as prejudiced, uncaring, quaint or even despicable.

When this group is referenced by mainstream political leaders it can be with an element of contempt. When President Obama says that an anxious lower-middle class is clinging to their guns and religion, he’s putting them down. Just as Mitt Romney is when he implies that the bottom 47% of the socioeconomic class are parasites on society.

These may not be meant as put downs, but the reality is that historically neither party has addressed the economic anxieties of the white middle class. Democrats focused on minority rights and income inequality, even though for most working Americans, their day to day concerns are about achieving a decent living and lifestyle for their families. Republicans focused on cultural and national security issues, on reforming taxes and business regulations, rather than on the dwindling standard of living for so many Americans. They see themselves as the forgotten Americans, and they are cynical about either political party ever doing anything to address their needs and anxieties.

Into this cauldron of uncertainty and betrayal, enters Donald Trump. Despite his enormous wealth (and maybe because of it), he emotionally connects with blue collar workers. It doesn’t matter that Trump came from an upper class family as his wealth was earned though real estate development and construction, both seen as honest ways to earn a living. Trump’s wealth is not a barrier to connection; rather, it’s an asset, proof that with hard work, anything can be accomplished. It helps too that Trump speaks like a blue collar worker-- unpolished, plain speaking, pugnacious, insulting, and totally unapologetic. The middle class are not invisible to him, in his heart he’s one of them, and they can be darn sure he’ll address and solve their economic concerns.

Trump brilliantly addresses the concerns of blue collar America by expressing their views in their language. He talks about incompetent politicians allowing China, Japan, and Mexico to steal jobs from America. He talks about deporting illegal immigrants because they take jobs meant for true Americans. He talks about finding ways to help them make more money, just like he did for his own family. It doesn’t matter that Trump doesn’t share their religious values, that some of his antics are outlandish and embarrassing, or even that he lies, because they know he will do right by them. Trump hears them and he will not let them be marginalized. They will have a powerful ally in Washington, finally a President who understands their concerns, and who will fight for their needs. In an odd way, Trump’s replicating what FDR accomplished – a politician of great wealth that’s connecting to the little guy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Donald Trump The Wizard Of Ozz

What to make of Donald Trump. Against all odds he is now the prohibitive favorite to capture the Republican nomination for President of the United States. The party of Lincoln and Reagan is about to nominate a crude, authoritarian, narcissistic blowhard whose claim on the presidency is that he is a “successful businessman”. Conventional political strategy is to attack him for not being a true Republican; for lacking the temperament, judgment, and core principles to be President; and for not having detailed policy proposals to address the issues facing America. This logical approach to criticizing Trump is spectacularly unsuccessful as his political strength is growing rather than diminishing.

Instead of a logical approach to undermining Trump, what is needed is a psycho-logical approach. Politics has a logic of its own that is based on meeting the psychological needs of people. To paraphrase Jonah Goldberg, when Trump says 2 + 2 = 5 he is considered an idiot by conventional standards. In politics, however, if a million people believe 2 + 2 = 5 they are not a million idiots but a “constituency” and as the constituency expands it becomes a “movement”, and the person proposing 2 + 2 = 5 is the opposite of an idiot. He is a savior.

Trump's core constituency are white blue collar workers most affected by the decades long trends of globalization and technological advances. Manufacturing shifts to countries with lower labor costs puts downward pressure on wages and technological advances replaces blue collar workers with machines. Blue collar workers no longer believe in the American dream and are considerably anxious about their economic future – particularly blue collar workers with no other job skills and too old for retraining.

Enter Donald Trump who promises to bring back jobs from China, Japan, and Mexico; eliminate illegal immigrants that are usurping jobs from Americans; and create a booming economy where wages grow and the American Dream is restored. This is catnip to his constituency and is taken as gospel because of Trump's track record of amassing a multi-billion fortune as a businessman.

Attacks on the feasibility of Trumps immigration or economic plans or his off the wall comments that range from childish to dangerous and bigoted do not persuade his core constituency. Not because they are stupid or ill informed, but because they have great faith in the Trump persona honed over many years as a TV reality host – the plain spoken, take no prisoners, feisty, and successful businessman.

Constituents re-construe criticisms of Trump through the lens of his persona. His outrageous comments and personal attacks evidences his unvarnished truthfulness. Details on his economic plans are unnecessary as his phenomenal success as a businessman demonstrates his economic acumen.

Tuesday night's primary result showed Trump expanding his constituency beyond blue collar workers. Exit polls indicated that Trump was overwhelmingly favored by voters who expressed anger or frustration with current politicians. The anti-establishment sentiment incorporates a wide swath of Republican voters. He won most states in the Super Tuesday primaries from the north to the south, from Massachusetts to Alabama. He solidified an ideologically diverse coalition of working and middle class families behind his clarion call that politicians have failed and only he can turn America around.

His followers see Trump as a fighter who speaks their language and has their back. He is the one that can make Washington work again. Never mind that Trump hints at using strong-arm tactics when he is opposed. His voters just want the proverbial trains to run on time again.

This will continue until the Trump persona is pierced, the curtain is pulled back, and he is revealed as just another Wizard of Oz. This requires questioning his business success and net worth, his concern for the vulnerable, and the consequences of having a strongman President. There is plenty of video of ordinary people affected by Trump's business scams and failings; of his roughshoding veterans and homeowners to further his business interests; of his threats to use law suits or the institutions of government to shut down freedom of speech; of his refusal to disclose prior tax returns because they reveal business reversals, lack of charitable contributions, and a considerably smaller net worth than his boastful claims.

It may be too late for saturation ads with these videos to turn the tide. The die may be cast, but the consequences of a Trump candidacy are too painful to contemplate. Truly a miracle is needed. I am going to pray for one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Guns And Abortions - Two Peas In A Moral Pod

I must confess, the idea of having a gun at home for protection frightens me.   I am far more concerned about the consequences of an accidental discharge than I am of the consequences of having an intruder in my house.   I believe that hurting someone through an accidental discharge is a more likely scenario than the intruder scenario. I also am very squeamish at the thought of hunting.  I do not understand the emotional satisfaction of the hunting experience, and hunting for sport is dead wrong and immoral to me.  

Modern guns are rapid fire, accurate, and so powerful -  capable of mass killing in a short period of time.  So if it were up to me, only law enforcement would be able to legally own weapons.

ON the other hand, my brother is a gun advocate. A retired military man, he is very comfortable around guns, but is also extremely mindful of the safe handling and use of weapons.  My brother owns multiple guns as he keeps a gun in each room of his house so he's ready everywhere in case of a home invasion. My brother also appreciates the craftsmanship of his weapons.  He can talk at length to me about the balance, precision, beauty,and mechanical advances of guns.  He cleans and oils his weapons and takes pleasure in how they look after maintenance.  For my brother, his guns are admired tools in the same way that a carpenter admires and cares for his tools.   For me, a gun is a lump of steel that can have deadly and immoral consequences

The issue of abortion breaks along similar lines.  Pro life advocates find abortion immoral and abhorrent.   Pro choice advocates perceive abortion as a tool used for the constitutionally protected privacy rights of women.   An abortion doctor can talk in a matter of fact, or even an admiring way, about the procedural details of an abortion from a clinical, instrumental, perspective.  The undercover tapes of the Planned Parenthood doctors talking in this detached and sometimes approving manner about manipulating forceps on a living being disgusts and shocks pro life advocates.

Each side believes that legislation which creates obstacles to access is designed to whittle and ultimately eliminate their constitutionally protected rights.  Gun advocates believe that additional gun control laws will lead to a nationally registry of weapons, and then confiscation by the Federal Government.  Pro choice advocates perceive laws adding further requirements to perform abortions are
designed to reduce and ultimately eliminate abortion in this country 

Each side presents statistics and polls buttressing their point of view.  The reality is that data is not persuasive when addressing moral beliefs.  Social, moral issues will continue to polarize until a consensus on these issues is achieved.

Both of these issues are highly politicized.  Republicans and Democrats, at the national level, do so to fire up their respective bases and to create wedge issues for political advantage.  In a pure world, Democrats and Republicans would allow these issues to play out at the state level, a proven, effective manner of coming to a consensus on social issues.  A consensus on gay marriage was achieved that way.   Prior to the supreme court protecting  gay marriage as a constitutional right, 37 states had already legalized gay marriage. 

Of course I would be naive to think that we will live in a world where politicians act solely for the greater good.  In the mean time, how about each side appreciating that their issue is a kindred spirit to the other side's issue when thinking about and discussing guns and abortion.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Donald Trump - Rebel With A Cause

The big story in American politics is the meteoric rise of Donald Trump as a serious political candidate.  His mix of reality television shamelessness, nationalistic messaging, and narcissistic boastfulness would normally doom a candidate.  Not Trump. The more outrageous he becomes, the more his popularity grows.   

Trump defies ideological pigeonholing because he lacks coherent messaging that reflects conservative or liberal principles.  He's his own man, a populist, and like populists before him--George Wallace, William Jennings Bryan, and Ross Perot--Trump's rise is occurring during a time of great social and economic unrest. 

What distinguishes Donald Trump from other populists is his unabashed crassness.  The social trends allowing for such a boorish candidate to emerge as a front runner in America today is the result of a paradigm shift in Western culture that began in the 20th century. Before then, a belief in Christianity and a universal God organized society, providing a moral and social code to live by and a bulwark against tragic events that defied human explanation.  

As time passed, huge advances in mankind's scientific understanding of the world began to undermine the belief in God because so many things could now be explained without reference to God.  Doubts about God's existence accelerated when people began questioning how a personal and loving God could allow the massive carnage of two world wars. Beginning in Europe, where the two wars were fought, then moving to the United States, Western society secularized. 

As the Judaeo-Christian doctrines holding America together waned, the beliefs that held American society together lost their influence. Conspicuous consumption replaced thrift and decorum. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers replaced clergy as spiritual life counselors. Politeness and civility as a means of regulating social interaction eroded. Self help books emphasized self-improvement rather than character development, self esteem rather than self-control. Painting no longer focused on the richness of humanity--of people living in humanity with nature and one another --  filled with human portraits portraying rich interior lives.  Modern art freed itself from the world of humanity, eventually even freeing itself from visual reality.  In books and film the anti-hero was born, whose obligation was more to himself than his fellow man.   

Donald Trump is the extreme embodiment of these changing cultural trends. Trump defines himself by the wealth he has amassed. He evaluates people by their ability to dominate rather than by their character. Character means very little to Trump, which is why he can without moral qualms, be honored by Vladimir Putin's flattery and praise Putin as a respected leader. Trump's entire world is divided into winners and losers rather than decent and indecent. Since character doesn't matter, winning takes on a Machiavellian tone where lying, cheating, and manipulating are perfectly acceptable strategies to succeed. 

Donald Trump's over the top rhetoric falls outside the acceptable bounds of political leaders' discourse.  Sadly, he is within the bounds of what Americans perceive politicians to actually be like. Most Americans view politicians as part of the cultural trend of mainstream society, untrustworthy and mostly out for themselves. 

Trump is seen as refreshing and candid because he is willing to voice what people believe other politicians are thinking but are too afraid to actually say. Trump's grittiness and politically incorrect rhetoric make him the ideal candidate for our times, the quintessential anti-hero.  The outsider who upends the rules and creates a new order. The traditional noble, heroic politician, sacrificing for the good of many, seems boring and out of step in today's world. Trump the anti-hero fascinates and excites, bringing his followers closer to him because his flaws and realness are on display.      

Like all good populists, Trump's rhetoric addresses people's worst fears, in this case economic uncertainty and the very real threat of terrorism. Relying on his image as a winner and his anti-hero status, Trump assures voters that he has all the answers for our nation's economic woes, the grit and toughness to deal with ISIS, the guts and wiliness to take on the likes of Vladimir Putin.

A key to understanding Trump's appeal is his campaign slogan, he'll make America great again. This phrase is a vague enough commitment that Republicans can project their own wishes for themselves and America onto the phrase, the same way Democrats did with Barack Obama's campaign slogan of hope and change.   

The majority of Trump supporters are older, working class Republicans, and for them making America great again represents a by gone era when the values that  made America economically strong and morally great were dominant features of society.  These traditional American values are etched on our coinage --  Liberty, In God we Trust, and E Pluribus Unum,          

Today our nation's working class continues to be pounded by economic and social trends beyond their control.  Globalization and technological advances have lowered their wages and reduced the numbers of jobs available to them. Secularism supplanted a faith based society, individual freedoms deteriorated with the growth of government, and cultural diversity replaced the melting pot. 

These marginalized Americans see Donald Trump as a successful business man with the skills necessary to grow our economy, and as a hard nosed negotiator that will bring back manufacturing jobs to the homeland from nations like China.  His followers also believe Trump's tough stance on deporting illegal immigrants and building the border wall, will reverse the trend towards cultural diversity.  No doubt his base will remain loyal because he brings solutions to their existential crisis. Whether Trump can expand beyond this base of supporters and secure the nomination is an open question. If history is a guide, populists rarely do. But the anti-hero populist has no historical precedent, so he may well beat the odds