Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Obama Can Salvage the Economy -- and His Presidency -- By Pushing for Simpson-Bowles

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman posted an excellent analysis yesterday, arguing that the only way Barack Obama can salvage the economy -- and his presidency -- is by making the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction recommendations his own and fighting to implement them between now and election day.  Friedman isn't the first or the only commentator to suggest this, but his arguments may be the most compelling anyone has made so far.  And, for good measure, he includes criticism of Obama from none other than Warren Buffett, who is trying to tell the president that he's running out of options fast.  Excerpts of the column follow.

President Obama has a clear choice on how to approach the 2012 election: He can spend all his energy defining Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or whoever ends up as the Republican nominee in as ugly a way as possible, or he can spend all his energy defining the future in as credible a way as possible. If he spends his energy defining his Republican opponent, there is a chance the president will win with 50.00001 percent of the vote and no mandate to do what needs doing. If he spends his time defining the future in a credible way and offering a hard, tough, realistic pathway to get there, he will not only win, but he will have a mandate to take the country where we need to go.

I voted for Barack Obama, and I don’t want my money back. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves for bringing the economy he inherited back from the brink of a depression. He’s fought the war on terrorism in a smart and effective way. He’s making health care possible for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions, and he saved the auto industry. This is big stuff. But, as important as all of these achievements are, they pale in comparison to the defining challenge of Obama’s presidency: Can he put the country on a sustainable economic recovery path at a time when, if we fail, it could be the end of the American dream?

I believe the best way for Obama to do that is by declaring today that he made a mistake in spurning his own deficit reduction commission, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and is now adopting Simpson-Bowles — which already has Republican and Democratic support — as his long-term fiscal plan to be phased in after a near-term stimulus. If he did that, he would win politically and create a national consensus that would trump his opponents, right and left.

“I think what happened with Simpson-Bowles was an absolute tragedy,” Warren Buffett said on CNBC last week. “They work like a devil for 10 months. ... They compromise. They bring in people as far apart as [Democratic Senator Dick] Durbin and [Republican Senator Tom] Coburn to get them to sign on and then they’re totally ignored. I think that’s a travesty.”

I think America’s broad center understands very clearly that the country is in trouble and that the Republican Party has gone nuts. But when they look at Obama on the deficit, they feel something is missing. People know leadership when they see it — when they see someone taking a political risk, not just talking about doing so, not just saying, “I’ll jump if the other guy jumps.” In times of crisis, leaders jump first, lay out what truly needs to be done to fix the problem, not just to win re-election, and by doing so earn the right to demand that others do the same.

What would it look like if the president was offering such leadership? First, he’d be proposing a deficit-cutting plan that matches the scale of our problem — one with substantial tax reform and revenue increases, a gasoline tax, deep defense cuts and cutbacks to both Social Security and Medicare. That is the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it should be Obama’s new starting point for negotiations. The deficit plan Obama put out last September is nowhere near as serious.

Second, he’d offer a plan in which the wealthy have to pay their fair share and more, because they’ve had a great two decades. But everyone, including the middle class, has to contribute something. This has to be a national effort. Third, he would offer a plan that is aspirational. It would not just be a roadmap to balancing the budget but to making America great again through reignited economic growth.

My gut says that if the president lays out such a plan — one that begins with him taking all the political risks on himself and then demanding the G.O.P. and his own party follow — he will be both defining himself and the future in a way that would earn him so much centrist support and respect that it would leave every possible Republican opponent in the dust, no matter how obstructionist they are or want to be.

Go big, Mr. President. You will win, and so will America.

Friday, November 04, 2011

On Second Thought: Devil Doesn't Make Gays Do It, Catholic Newspaper Decides

The Pilot, which is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, now says "our bad" regarding a column it published October 28th that made the devil responsible for same-sex attraction.

A low-level staffer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops evidently authored the piece.  He says it was "not authorized for publication"--although one might wonder who authorized him to write it at all.

However, the newspaper's editors and even a spokesperson for the archdiocese have all been quick to say that the devil-theory is a theological error that is not the position of the Catholic Church.  A Jesuit priest chimed in to agree that The Pilot was right to retract the column and apologize for running it.

The following is The Huffington Post's coverage of the faux pas:

A controversial column suggesting same-sex attraction was the work of the devil has been retracted from the country's oldest Catholic newspaper.

The piece by Daniel Avila, an associate director for policy and research for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was published in The Pilot on Oct. 28 and was pulled from the publication's website Wednesday, Nov. 2 accompanied by an apology, The Associated Press reports.

The nearly 900-word column ponders the origin of homosexual attraction from a "born this way" standpoint. It stated:

Disruptive imbalances in nature that thwart encoded processes point to supernatural actors who, unlike God, do not have the good of persons at heart.

In other words, the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil...

...whenever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God.

Avila later stated that the commentary was "not authorized for publication" and that he apologized for the "hurt and confusion" the piece caused. In an editor's note, the publication said it was sorry for "having failed to recognize the theological error in the column."

"As we absorbed what was in the paper, we said, 'Whoa, that's a problem' Terrence Donilon, a spokesperson for the archdiocese told the Boston Globe about the column. "That's not the position of the church or the archdiocese."

Avila also acknowledged that he does not support unjust treatment or violence toward anyone.

A printed apology will appear in this week's issue of the publication, the Boston Globe reports.

UPDATE:  12:42 p.m. --

Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, supports The Pilot's decision to retract the column.

"Satan doesn't create homosexuality any more than Satan creates heterosexuality," Martin told The Huffington Post in an email. "God creates gays and lesbians, loves them into being, and love them into eternity.

"Opining that their sexuality comes from satanic forces seems to be in opposition to the Catechism," he added.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

"Stick to Being Bulls. Stop Being Pigs." -- Thomas Friedman Advises the Top 1%

In his column published in the Houston Chronicle on October 30th, New York Times writer Thomas Friedman, a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, pinpointed exactly why the Occupy Wall Street protests have found such resonance, both across the United States and around the globe: like the Arab Spring protesters in Tharir Square in Cairo, Occupy Wall Street is primarily a cry for fundamental economic justice.

Friedman says that despite causing the economic collapse and arousing the animosity of the public and progressives in Congress, the large U.S. banks and other Wall Street institutions still don't get it. He suggests that they pay attention and repent--before things get really ugly. And since repentance seems unlikely, he also proposes four essential reforms--none of which the financial services industry, or their cronies in Congress, will like.

The second half of Friedman's column follows (reformatted in places for added emphasis).

Our financial industry has grown so large and rich it has corrupted our real institutions through political donations. As Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, bluntly said in a 2009 radio interview, despite having caused this crisis, these same financial firms "are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place."

Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.

We can't afford this any longer. We need to focus on four reforms that don't require new bureaucracies to implement.

1) If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big and needs to be broken up. We can't risk another trillion-dollar bailout.

2) If your bank's deposits are federally insured by U.S. taxpayers, you can't do any proprietary trading with those deposits - period.

3) Derivatives have to be traded on transparent exchanges where we can see if another AIG is building up enormous risk.

4) Finally, an idea from the blogosphere: U.S. congressmen should have to dress like NASCAR drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they're taking money from.

Capitalism and free markets are the best engines for generating growth and relieving poverty - provided they are balanced with meaningful transparency, regulation and oversight. We lost that balance in the last decade. If we don't get it back - and there is now a tidal wave of money resisting that - we will have another crisis. And, if that happens, the cry for justice could turn ugly.

Free advice to the financial services industry: Stick to being bulls. Stop being pigs.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Canon Lawyer Disputes Expelling Priest for Supporting Women's Ordination

It has been three years since the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois--for decades a widely respected Catholic peace activist--that he had 30 days to recant his public support for ordaining women or face automatic excommunication.

Although Bourgeois said that as a matter of conscience he could not accept the official Roman teaching that women may not be ordained, the Vatican never declared that he had been excommunicated. However, in March of 2011 his religious order said it was dismissing him for "publicly rejecting the teaching of the Holy Father." Maryknoll has yet to carry out the threat.

More recently, however, Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, better known for his advocacy on behalf of victims of clerical sexual abuse, has written a letter to Maryknoll's Superior General, questioning both the legality and the appropriateness of the order's announced action again Bourgeois--and the Vatican ultimatum that preceded it.

The following is coverage of Doyle's argument by Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter. The points Doyle makes are also important because they challenge the insistence of some that the recent papal teaching on women's ordination is infallible--when in fact is most certainly is not. Bourgeois is not the only church leader who has been disciplined over that claim.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois recently took another step in his fight to remain a member of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, when he asked his superiors to engage reputable theologians to reconsider issues stemming from his support for the ordination of women.

"In spite of the apparently clear orders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the related norms of church law, the overall situation with Roy is anything but clear-cut and simple,” Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer representing Bourgeois, wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to Fr. Edward Dougherty, Maryknoll’s superior general. Doyle is most widely known for his advocacy on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

Doyle contends that the church’s prohibition of female ordination is not infallible teaching and asks in his letter “that the assistance and input of reputable theologians be sought in order to look much more deeply” into two central issues: the church’s claim that the teaching is infallible and the right of a Catholic “to act and think according to the dictates of his conscience” even if the conclusions put one in conflict with the church’s highest authorities.

Doyle also argues that the punishment of excommunication and expulsion from the society is disproportionate. As a comparison, he notes that priests and bishops who sexually abused children and/or covered up the abuse have not been excommunicated.

In response to a question, Maryknoll spokesman Mike Virgintino said that Doyle’s letter had been received and that the general council had not yet responded to it “but will review his letter and will respond to him at earliest opportunity.”

In October 2008, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave Bourgeois, who had participated in a woman’s ordination ceremony, 30 days to recant his “belief and public statements that support ordination of women” or face automatic excommunication. Bourgeois never recanted, saying he could not in good conscience do so.

Whether the priest was formally excommunicated is unclear, because the Vatican never issued a public statement to that effect. At the same time, while never responding directly to Bourgeois, doctrinal congregation officials have communicated with Maryknoll, a society founded 100 years ago to train priests to work in foreign missions.

In a July 27 letter to Bourgeois, Dougherty warned the priest a second time that if he continued his “campaign in favor of women priests and failed to recant publicly your position on the matter” he faced dismissal from the order. Bourgeois was given 15 days from reception of the letter to recant or the dismissal proceedings would begin. However, the letter also noted that Bourgeois had the right to defend himself against the warning and the proposed dismissal.

In an interview with NCR, Doyle said his intent in filing a response with Dougherty was to have the order “take a deep breath and step back from starting the process.” He said there were substantial issues that should be considered by the society’s leadership and members.

In one of several documents filed with Dougherty between Aug. 15 and Aug. 30, Doyle explains that Bourgeois’ defense is based on two rationales: first, Bourgeois’ right to not violate his conscience and, second, his conviction that ordination of women is not an infallible teaching.

Doyle said Bourgeois believes the teaching is not “so essential to the core beliefs of Catholic Christians that to question or reject it is tantamount to a rejection of the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ which form the core of Catholicism as a people of God.”

Bourgeois’ view of women’s ordination “is shared by countless others, including scripture scholars, theologians and church historians from among the ranks of the laity, priesthood and episcopacy,” Doyle said.

Bourgeois formed his views, Doyle said, “in an unselfish and honest manner, well-aware of the consequences of taking a position that is contrary to the present and past pope as well as most (at least) of the Vatican curia.” At the same time, argues Doyle, there is “no evidence of either consensus or unanimity among theologians, scripture scholars and bishops” that the ban on women’s ordination is “solidly grounded” in either tradition or teaching of the church, as asserted by the late Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

"There is a massive body of scholarly work,” writes Doyle, “that credibly challenges the assertion that Jesus ordained anyone as priests and an equally credible and persuasive body of scholarly work that can find no consistent and continuous theological tradition that would support the preclusion of women from sacred orders, other than the tradition that official power in the church has been held by men.”

Doyle also challenged imposition of the punishment of automatic excommunication, saying it did not conform to the requirements of canon law in this case because Bourgeois’ actions do not involve a “malicious disregard” for church authority but rather his belief “that to act contrary to the dictates of his conscience … would be tantamount to a serious sin on his part.”

In a separate document, Doyle submitted a list of quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas, Vatican documents, and the Gospel of Matthew upholding the primacy of conscience in Catholic teaching.

In the same vein, said Doyle, Bourgeois’ actions have not “gravely harmed” anyone, nor has anyone lost belief in God or been “so physically or emotionally damaged that he or she has been deprived of the ability to lead a happy and productive life” because of Bourgeois’ convictions or actions.

In contrast, Doyle notes some 20 members of the hierarchy in the United States, 15 in Europe and three in Canada, including some cardinals, “have been confirmed by credible sources to have committed the canonical delict named in canon 1395.2, that is, the sexual molestation of minors, or the crime mentioned in Title V of the Papal Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, in force until May 18, 2001, namely sex with men.”

Those infractions, said Doyle, carry a punishment up to and including dismissal from the clerical state.

Yet no member of the hierarchy to date has undergone even a papal investigation, said Doyle, “much less any form of penal sanction. … To this date no archbishop, cardinal or bishop who has violated both canon law and civil law by sheltering known sexual abusers among the clergy or by knowingly reassigning known molesters to other assignments where they could and often did continue to violate the vulnerable, has been asked to resign, much less face justified canonical investigation and prosecution.”

Even among the thousands of priests across the globe who have been credibly accused of molesting minors or convicted in criminal proceedings, not one has been excommunicated, said Doyle, though most have been removed from the clergy ranks.

“The contrast is striking: Thirty-eight bishops who have committed grave sexual crimes which have resulted in serious emotional and spiritual damage to innocent Catholics have faced no disciplinary action, while four bishops who have followed their consciences and publicly questioned Vatican practices or doctrine out of concern for the spiritual welfare of the faithful have not only been humiliated but removed from office."

Doyle concludes by asking on Bourgeois’ behalf that the process that has arrived at an ultimatum “be seriously and fearlessly re-evaluated” by outside theologians against the backdrop of concerns raised in his correspondence.

After listing several links to earlier coverage, NCR appended the following to Roberts' article:

Statements of the primacy of conscience

In a separate document to Maryknoll Fr. Edward Dougherty, Fr. Thomas Doyle submitted a list of quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas, Vatican documents, and the Gospel of Matthew upholding the primacy of conscience in Catholic teaching. Following are a few selections from Doyle’s letter.

“Conscience is more to be obeyed than authority imposed from the outside. By following a right conscience you not only do not incur sin but are also immune from sin, whatever superiors may say to the contrary. To act against one's conscience and to disobey a superior can both be sinful. Of the two, the first is the worse since the dictate of conscience is more binding than the decree of external authority.” [St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 17, a.5]

“Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such a way that anyone who acts against his conscience always sins.” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Questiones quodlibetales, 3, q. 12, a.2]

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience in a wonderful way, that law is made know which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one's neighbor.” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 16)

"Over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one's own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism." (Josef Ratzinger, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 1967)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Risking All on Cherishing the Gift of a Common Creation as Our Common Good

Jeff Dietrich, a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community, had an excellent essay in the September 2nd print edition of the National Catholic Reporter, reminding us that the traditional Catholic emphasis on our duty to promote the common good traces back to creation as God's common gift to all creatures--and that grasping that and living it could do a lot to fix what's wrong with our world.

A longer version of the article originally appeared in the June edition of
The Catholic Agitator, where Dietrich is editor. Most of the NCR version is below:

The recent vitriolic debate in Congress about raising the debt ceiling, the rancor at paying taxes for other people’s health care, the thought that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid might be cut, and public education dismantled, the destruction of unions, and the denigration of voices calling for mutual responsibility all reflect the degree to which the values of the marketplace have displaced our sense of the common good.

When I think of the common good, I think of the commons, the common land worked communally in pre-Renaissance Europe, and I think of Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, who still had a memory of the commons -- a memory of medieval times, forged by his early village years in a part of France that was slow to develop and still lived by the old values and rhythms.

Lewis Hyde tells us in his now classic book, The Gift, that this way of life was largely destroyed throughout most of Europe, and he reminds us that it was the Reformation that changed everything. In 1525 the Peasants’ War, precipitated by the liberative aspects of the Reformation, was at its height in Germany. Hyde writes, “Germany had seen over a hundred years of unrest as feudalism faded and [Lutheran] princes began to consolidate their power by territory. ... The basis of land tenure had shifted. ... Now men claimed to own the [common] land and offered to rent it for a fee.”

Thus the mass displacement of commoners from the common land, driven by capitalism, led to an unprecedented increase of impoverished people from rural areas migrating to the plague-infested slums of large European cities, there to be exploited as cheap labor for the industrial revolution and consumers of its mass-produced commodities.

Hyde describes the Europeans’ export to the New World of this same process of displacement of commoners and commodification of the commons: “The Peasants’ War was the same war that the American Indians had to fight with the Europeans, war against the marketing of formerly inalienable properties. Whereas before a man could fish in any stream and hunt in any forest, now he found that there were individuals who claimed to be the owners of these commons.”

Like the Native Americans, the ancestors of our Judeo-Christian tradition were also tribal people. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel, our forefathers, escaped slaves from the “overdeveloped” Egyptian empire, understood that “development” and exploitation of common creation was the primary sin of humanity. They incorporated the understanding of the gift of common creation to all from the Creator God into their very laws. “Don’t take more than you need. Make sure everyone has enough. Don’t work on the Sabbath” (Exodus 16:16-30).

The Sabbath day prohibitions call us to stop and rest in creation, as did the Native Americans, who were regarded by European settlers as lazy. It is all gift, and the more we work the more we delude ourselves into thinking that what we have is what we earned and that we deserve what is in reality a gift. That is the meaning of Sabbath.

The church’s doctrine of the common good filters down to us through the scriptures. However, its moral formulation was birthed during the feudal era, a time of peasants who, like Peter Maurin, lived off the common lands and were displaced by the lords and princes of this world. The Robin Hood story of Sherwood Forest is an old memory of that struggle. Our collective longings for primeval trees, large-eyed deer and doe, and the shining salmon surging up crystal streams recall a time when the gift of creation was common to us all.

Hyde tells us that we should understand gift as a “total social phenomenon -- one whose transactions are at once economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, and mythical, and whose meaning cannot, therefore, be adequately described from the point of view of any single discipline.” The meaning of the gift, he says, is always enshrouded in mystery. However, the doctrine of the common good can be seen as not mysterious, but rational and reductionistic.

Yet, as Catholics, we are marked in our hearts and souls by mystery--the mystery of the Eucharist.

Hyde has helped me to understand the mystery of the Eucharist, the mystery of gratitude. And it makes no difference whether we believe in the traditional eucharistic doctrine of “transubstantiation,” or we believe in the “unbloody sacrifice of Calvary,” or we believe that we simply “share a meal, a common meal, so that all might be satisfied.” It is still mystery.

And mystery, Hyde says, “revives and refreshes” and marks us as people of the gift and the common good, causing us to remember the startling words of Isaiah: “Why work for that which is not food? Why give your life for what does not satisfy?” I also think of Dorothy Day, who at the end of her life could say, “All is grace, all is grace, all is gift and grace.” Hyde quotes Thomas Merton, who says, “Grace and gift flow to the empty places, grace flows to the poor beggar with the empty bowl,” and the mystery of the Eucharist is that gift and grace flow back from the empty places, softening the hardest hearts.

As Catholics, we know intuitively and irrationally that our redemption, our very salvation, is bound up with softening hearts and the mutual reciprocity of gift that flows to the empty places. We are all people marked by mystery and the gift of the common good that surpasses all understanding and flies under the radar of logic and rationality, striking the core of our being. We know that in some mysterious way we are all connected, that we are all in communion, that as Dorothy Day would say, “An injury to one is an injury to us all.”

In addition, we know that the rancor, rhetoric and rectitude of the current public discourse is not our language. We know that our mother tongue is the language of soft hearts, of gift and grace and Eucharist. We know that we cannot be whole until all empty bowls of the poor are filled and all empty spaces are filled -- until the hills are brought down and the valleys are filled.

We cannot be satisfied until all are satisfied.

Times are tough. The commons will continue to be rapaciously “developed” for the profit of the few; the poor will continue to be evicted from the commons and marginated from the common good. Wealthy capitalists will try to commodify and control every element that is common to our common humanity: food, water, earth and even the air; and then they will try to sell it back to us for a profit.

We live in a perilous time, a time that calls for perilous action, but we cannot save the world. As Christians we are enjoined to believe that the world has already been saved, as absurd as that notion may seem. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “The worst is already over.”

If we believe such pie-in-the-sky nonsense, we have only one choice: We are compelled to live our lives as a testament to that very nonsense. We have to fly like a bird under the radar of marketplace rationality and marketplace logos and risk the derision, diminishment and dismissal that come to fools who take it all seriously. We have to risk everything on the importance of the common good and put ourselves in the flow of the gift relationship, into the mystery of the Eucharist that is celebrated, however improbably, in such disparate places as Sunday suburban parishes, ghetto hovels, prison cells, papal palaces, and, yes, the basements of tawdry soup kitchens.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't Blame the EPA for Luminant Job Losses; Blame Perry's Failed Deregulation

In the print edition of today's Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy has a characteristically prescient take the lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency by Luminant, Texas' largest power plant operator.

Luminant, in bed with presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry, contends that the agency's stricter air quality standards will cause it to close two coal-fired power generating facilities and lay off 500 employees.  But Steffy suggests other culprits:

Given that NRG, the second-biggest generator in the state, says it will comply with the EPA regulations without any layoffs or plant closings, the Luminant job losses would not be caused by the EPA but by Luminant's financial problems.  And, unfortunately, those can be traced directly to Texas' failed attempt at deregulation of electric companies, championed by none other than Gov. Perry himself.

I have looked in vain for an electronic link to Steffy's column.  If one eventually becomes available, I will include it in a comment on this posting.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Rick Perry Has Put Texas in Debt $21 Billion to Build Roads--and Plans $10 Billion More!

Texas Governor Rick Perry has continued flitting around the country, proclaiming the superiority of the Texas economy over just about everyone elses and taking credit for balancing the Texas budget without raising any new revenues. He's also a constant conservative critic of federal spending and borrowing.

Nay-sayers have pointed out that Perry never acknowledges taking federal stimulus money to balance the state's previous budget--even though he could not have balanced it without the federal funds.

Now comes the revelation that Perry, in addition to gorging himself at the federal trough, has since 2001 also saddled Texans with $21 billion in indebtedness for new road construction -- and plans to raise the number to $31 billion during his current term!

Here's the story, from yesterday's Houston Chronicle, authored by Jim Dunnam, a former Texas state representative and senior fellow at The Texas First Foundation, which aims to put what is right for Texas ahead of partisan politics.

With all our attention focused on the federal debt-ceiling debacle in Washington, it is easy to ignore our own state debt crisis here in Texas. Texas' debt is increasing at a rate that rivals the federal government's, yet no one seems to know it.

We have heard how our new Texas budget cuts more than $4 billion from our schools and students, but not about our ballooning state debt.

Before Rick Perry became governor, Texas was a pay-as-you-go state for roads, meaning we used current gas tax receipts to pay for new road construction. Our forefathers set up a system where transportation needs were paid for then and now, not by passing the buck to future generations. Under Gov. Perry, all that changed.

Starting in 2001, Texas started borrowing money for new road construction, pushing that cost onto future taxpayers. In just a decade, this debt has grown from zero to $11.9 billion. With interest payments, future taxpayers and our children will need 20 years and $21.1 billion to pay off that debt. There is even more about to be borrowed. In all, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has authority to borrow $17.3 billion, with a 30-year payoff of $31.1 billion, further shifting the burden to our children.

To make matters worse, new transportation debt is being secured by general state revenue, not just the gas tax. The exact same taxes we use to pay for public education, state universities and health care are now being diverted to make bond and interest payments on this debt. Imagine what future Texans could do without being saddled with $14 billion in interest payments over the next generation. They might not have to take money out of their public schools or health care. They might even have a real tax cut some day.

This debt is as potentially crushing on the future of Texas as the federal debt is for our United States. Texas' borrowing has gotten so bad that we are now spending more annually on debt service than we are paying for new roads. According to TxDOT's latest figures, we will spend $1.72 billion on debt payments over the next two years, compared to $1.28 billion for new roads. Just like Washington, Austin is borrowing and spending away our future.

Texas should have never gotten away from the pay-as-you-go system for roads. Our tax system is inefficient and broken. Instead of fixing our broken revenue structure, changing the 20-year-old gas tax methodology, or closing tax loopholes, nearly all of our future infrastructure needs are to be funded by borrowing from the future generation of Texans.

With infrastructure needs only expected to grow, TxDOT continuing to issue bonds is unsustainable. Soon, all funds will be needed just to service the debt and pay interest, leaving nothing for future needs. In fact, bond rating agencies are already looking negatively upon toll road debt in the states, so even that favored option of Perry's will be gone.

Texas' political leadership likes to flaunt our balanced budget and admonish the federal government for its lack thereof. But those leaders are living in a giant glass house and deceiving Texans. The balance in Texas' budget is achieved largely through accounting tricks and debt, both of which shift the burden to future taxpayers. Genuine equalization between revenue and spending levels is nowhere near the truth about Texas' budget.

Today's successful Texas politicians shout, "No new taxes," then cut public education and health care for children, use accounting tricks to delay bills and advance receipts, then pat themselves on the back for balancing the budget. In the meantime, they quietly saddle future generations with billions in new debt obligations. Their borrowing means our children will pay nearly double tomorrow for what they are unwilling to pay for our needs today. Our parents did not do that to us, and we should be ashamed for betraying that legacy.

Texas needs roads, and we also need education. We have to have an honest conversation about how we can balance these needs without extreme cuts and without simply putting it all off for others to deal with.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Most Who Get Government Benefits Fail to See Themselves as Government Beneficiaries

Clarence Page had a great column on July 20th that took off from the incongruity of Michele Bachmann ranting against government programs while her own family has benefited from them significantly. But the main point of the column was that Bachmann is not untypical of thousands of other Americans who also fail to see how much they benefit from government programs.

The only caveat I would raise is that there are many different kinds of government benefits -- from those to which people should feel entitled because they have specifically paid into them, to those that help people who have served their country in the military, to those which aim to promote home ownership and education, to those designed to help the poor through expenditure of other peoples' tax revenue. Given this variety, it is possible for people to value some of the programs more than others. But otherwise, Page's point stands. Some of his paragraphs follow:

A substantial number of Americans who say they support cutting government programs don't realize just how much they benefit from them.

Many who receive government benefits either don't believe or don't understand that they are government beneficiaries, according to a study last year by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler.

Those who incorrectly identified themselves as not receiving government help included 60 percent of homeowners who qualify for a mortgage-interest deduction, 53 percent of those who hold government-backed student loans, 47 percent of those who qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 40 percent of Medicare recipients and 27 percent of Americans receiving welfare or Medicaid benefits.

As a mortgage payer, I was not surprised to hear that homeowners and student loan borrowers were least likely to see themselves as receiving a government benefit. After all, we work hard to pay off our loans. That makes it harder for us to think of tax breaks and government loan guarantees as "benefits," a term that today's political conversations tend to equate with "handouts" — even in some liberal circles.

Cornell's Mettler refers to such popular programs and policies as "the submerged state," a social welfare system that is virtually hidden in a wide array of popular policies aimed at incentivizing and subsidizing incomes, education, home-owning and other productive activities.

The reasons for the camouflage are political and practical. For example, liberals and conservatives alike find the Earned Income Tax Credit to be more popular than welfare payments as a way to fight poverty, reward work and help the poor become economically independent. But it's still a government program, even if almost half of its recipients don't realize it.

Government Can Stimulate Demand--and Should--Rice's Baker Institute Says

The Houston Chronicle on July 24, 2011, posted an op-ed column entitled "Government can stimulate demand." The print version on July 25th carried the sub-head, "Now is not the time for fiscal prudence."

The analysis argues that the economy is in deep trouble, and there is only one entity that can help it grow:

"Consumption is an unlikely source of growth. Given high levels of unemployment and consumer debt, the household sector is not in a position to power a robust recovery. Neither is the business sector. Businesses are not going to invest without some convincing signs that expenditures by other sectors are increasing. It doesn't make sense to invest in additional capacity when there is no demand for the new output. Finally, the rest of the world is not going to bail out the U.S. economy. U.S. exports have grown a little over the past year, but with contractionary policies being pursued in many countries, including Europe and even China, exports cannot be counted on to drive the economy. Besides, if the U.S. economy does start to recover, its imports will increase, partially offsetting the stimulus effect of exports.

"That leaves the government sector."

This, of course, makes perfect sense to me. And it is something that Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has argued for years.

What is remarkable about the Houston Chronicle column is that it is authored by two scholars from the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. For scholars at a conservative Republican think tank to come to this conclusion is truly eye-opening -- and just another marker of the national Republican Party's total disconnect from fiscal and political reality.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Duplicitus Rex: Prayer-a-Palooza Perry Reprises "Let's Do the Flip-Flop Again"

Political columnist Lisa Falkenberg had an excellent commentary in yesterday's print edition of the Houston Chronicle on how often Texas voters have allowed Rick Perry to change his mind on important political issues over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, since the Chronicle has thus far not seen fit to post the column on-line, we'll have to rely on my typing skills to give it the internet presence it deserves. The column is below, followed by a link to the Chronicle's take on Stephen Colbert's suggestion that the best running mate for Perry would be ... GOD!

The latest breathless dispatch from the Rick Perry presidential watch beat is that the governor told the Des Moines Register he's getting "more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do."

Now, if Perry really believes he's being called, I won't blame the Lord, whom Perry has falsely accused before. Recall that unfortunate Gulf oil spill that Perry famously blamed on "an act of God."

And there's always a chance the governor didn't hear quite right. It could have been a bad connection, like the time Perry prayed for rain and we got the worst drought since the 1950s.

That being said, it doesn't surprise me one bit that Perry would suddenly become"more comfortable" with the idea of leading a country he once flirted with seceding from.

If our governor is consistent about anything (other than good hair days) it's his penchant for changing his mind. Call it flip-flopping. Call it hypocrisy. But nobody does it better than our Perry.

It is, for me, the single most irritating thing about Texas' longest surviving governor. But it's also one of his best weapons. While other candidates may be bound by silly, old-fashioned things like truth, and principle and vertebrae, Perry -- the Democrat-turned Republican-turned Tea Party Darlin' -- is free to be whoever he needs to be in any given polling period.

He's an anti-government crusader who's a career politician who's collected a government paycheck for 20 years.

He's a fiscal conservative who called on lawmakers to make up a budget shortfall in the tens of billions by living within our means. Yet he's charging taxpayers $10,000 a month for a 6,386-square-foot rental mansion in the West Austin hills with seven baths and $1,000 Neiman Marcus window coverings.

He railed against federal stimulus funding, then took credit from a misinformed Fox news host who applauded him for not taking "any stimulus money," when, in fact, he signed a biennial budget in 2009 plugged with $12.1 billion in stimulus funding.

During the last gubernatorial campaign, Perry made a big do-to about so-called "sanctuary cities" like Houston when, by his own standards, he's the governor of a sanctuary state. Houston officers don't ask about immigration status in the field, but neither do troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Perry opposed the federal health care reform act, but considers it an "emergency" for government to force a woman considering an abortion to have a medically unnecessary sonogram.

While the governor is perfectly comfortable with government micromanaging women's wombs, he's appalled by such overreach in the form of, say, a bill that would have banned texting while driving. Our proudly "pro-life" governor saw nothing wrong with vetoing the anti-texting measure that would have surely saved lives.

The good Christian governor wears his faith like a campaign bumper sticker, and makes headlines with events like the upcoming prayer-a-palooza at Reliant. But when it comes to putting his money where his mouth is? The Chronicle's Gary Scharrer reported recently that, of the $2.68 million he's earned since he became governor, only half of a percent went to churches and religious organizations.

He's Fed Up with the federal government, and even wrote a book saying so. Texas can take care of itself, he says. He wants Washington out of his life, he says. Unless of course, he needs it. Like in the case of a wild fire, or when his political ambitions have grown too big even for Texas.

The subtitle of Perry's recent book is Our Fight to Save America from Washington. If Perry gets in, it'll be up to those of us who know him to save Washington from Perry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Liturgist Writes Scathing Critique of New U.S. Missal Dictated by Rome

Christians devoted to authentic liturgy and the authentic exercise of liturgical authority should be grateful to the National Catholic Reporter for publicizing an experienced liturgist's "searing critique of the New Roman Missal translation set to take effect in November." The critique by Rita Ferrone, author of several books on the liturgy, appears in the latest edition of Commonweal magazine.

Ferrone blames the sad shape of the new English translation on misuse of authority by the Vatican, a questionable set of liturgical translation principles decreed by the last two popes, and above all a reactionary drive to reverse the most significant liturgical reforms promulgated by the world's Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Ferrone offers examples of the translation's failings, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and shows how they result inexorably from Rome's failure to respect the experiences of local Catholics at public prayer.

I'll join NCR is highlighting the three concluding paragraphs of Ferrone's critique, which nicely summarize her point-by-point indictment of Rome's abusive meddling in liturgical decisions that, according to Vatican II, should rightly be made only by local bishops and their national conferences.

Where is this new translation taking us? It is important to realize that negative responses to the new translation reflect both dismay at the wording of the text and disagreement with the principles that guided its production. Yet the conflict goes deeper than an argument over theories of translation. That the new translation of the Roman Missal should come to us replete with embarrassing gaffes, nonsensical passages, and a near-total lack of accountability is as clearly a symptom of the misuse of authority as it is the fault of the questionable set of translation principles enunciated in Liturgiam authenticam. Yet even the misuse of authority is not the root cause of the immense disquiet and even outrage that this translation has aroused.

Beneath the words of the new translation, one senses a drive to minimize the practical effects of Vatican II. The reforms of Vatican II prized clarity and intelligibility in the liturgy; they gave priority to the work of ecumenism and evangelization; they respected the local work of bishops conferences; they invited aggiornamento and engagement with the world. This vital heritage is being eclipsed by another agenda. We are seeing a wooden loyalty to the Latin text at the price of clarity and intelligibility. We are seeing a retreat from advances already made in ecumenism. We are seeing the proper role of local bishops and bishops conferences increasingly taken over by the authorities in Rome. We are seeing the liturgy reimagined as an event taking place in some sacral space outside of our world, rather than the beating heart of a world made new.

Yes, we can get used to the new translation of the Roman Missal. But we shouldn’t. The church can do better, and deserves better, than this.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

David Brooks: GOP "Not Fit to Govern" If Their Fanaticism Causes Debt Default

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has decades-long credentials as a conservative but rationale Republican, took advantage of the 4th of July to repudiate the tea-bagger wing of the GOP as "an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."

Brooks' verdict: "If the debt-ceiling talks fail... independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

"And they will be right."

The last three-quarters of Brooks' column follow. The paragraphs are the best multi-count indictment I have seen for detailing how completely the tea-bagger Republicans have separated themselves from reality and from the values that characterize America. And in a religious assessment I very much share, he finds their "sacred fixation" on never raising taxes nothing less than idol-worship.

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vatican's Nostalgia for Eucharistic Adoration an Attempt to Return to "Ocular Communion"

The National Catholic Reporter yesterday posted Religion News Service coverage of Vatican attempts to inject new life into discredited practices of eucharistic adoration. It was heartening to read that several reputable theologians share my view that such devotions are inimical to a genuine understanding of the eucharist as a sacred meal. As a meal, it does not lend itself to being captured in a monstrance and worshipped as though it were a sacred thing or, even worse, the physical presence of Jesus himself.

Excerpts from the article follow. I eliminate paragraphs in which various right-wing Catholics try to defend eucharistic adoration. Those nostalgic for such theological claptrap can link to NCR's full coverage.

For seven centuries, Eucharistic adoration—praying before an exposed consecrated Communion host—was one of the most popular forms of devotion in the Roman Catholic Church, the focus of beloved prayers and hymns and a distinctive symbol of Catholic identity.

Following the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the practice fell from favor, especially in Europe and the U.S. But over the last decade, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the church has strongly encouraged a revival of the practice.

Next week (June 20-24), the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome will host an academic conference on Eucharistic adoration, where the speakers will include six prominent cardinals, focusing on the rediscovery of the practice.

At the same time, however, some theologians object to adoration as outdated and unnecessary, and warn that it can lead to misunderstandings and undo decades of progress in educating lay Catholics on the meaning of the sacrament.

Eucharistic adoration by the laity originated in the 13th century as a substitute for receiving Communion at Mass, said Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America.

At the same time, he said, the church often encouraged a believer’s sense of “personal unworthiness” to receive the sacrament—which Catholics believe to be the body of Christ—so many resorted to so-called “ocular communion” instead.

Eucharistic adoration was also used as a teaching tool to reaffirm the doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a noted theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

For instance, McBrien said, devotion grew during the 16th- and 17th-century Counter-Reformation, in response to the arguments of some Protestant Reformers that the Eucharist was merely a symbol, not the actual body of Christ.

In the days when priests celebrated Mass in Latin with minimal participation by the congregation, the hymns and prayers associated with adoration gave lay Catholics an opportunity for public worship, Irwin said.

Liturgical reforms after Vatican II greatly increased the laity’s participation at Mass, which Irwin said satisfied the “felt need for participation in public prayer.” Irwin called that an “underlying reason” for the practice’s decline.

McBrien acknowledged that some Catholics find adoration “spiritually enriching,” but said many liturgists see it is a “step back into the Middle Ages.”

“It distorts the meaning of the Eucharist,” McBrien said. “It erodes the communal aspect, and it erodes the fact that the Eucharist is a meal. Holy Communion is something to be eaten, not to be adored.”

For that reason, McBrien said, the practice should be “tolerated but not encouraged.”

Perry's 'Day of Prayer' Violates Church-State Separation, Houston Clergy Say

Twenty-five Houston clergy said in a column in the Houston Chronicle today that Gov. Rick Perry's planned day of prayer at Reliant Stadium on August 6th--to which only Christians whom Perry approves of are invited--violates the separation of church and state. Their column follows. The signatories may be found at the posting on the Chronicle's website.

As Houston clergy, we write to express our deep concern over Gov. Rick Perry's proclamation of a day of prayer and fasting at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Aug. 6. In our role as faith leaders, we encourage and support prayer, meditation and spiritual practice. Yet our governor's religious event gives us pause for a number of reasons.

We believe in a healthy boundary between church and state. Out of respect for the state, we believe that it should represent all citizens equally and without preference for religious or philosophical tradition. Out of respect for religious communities, we believe that they should foster faithful ways of living without favoring one political party over another. Keeping the church and state separate allows each to thrive and upholds our proud national tradition of empowering citizens to worship freely and vote conscientiously. We are concerned that our governor has crossed the line by organizing a religious event rather than focusing on the people's business in Austin.

We also express concern that the day of prayer and fasting at Reliant Stadium is not an inclusive event. As clergy leaders in the nation's fourth-largest city, we take pride in Houston's vibrant and diverse religious landscape. Our religious communities include Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarian Universalists and many other faith traditions. Our city is also home to committed agnostics and atheists, with whom we share common cause as fellow Houstonians. Houston has long been known as a live-and-let-live city where all are respected and welcomed. It troubles us that the governor's prayer event is not open to everyone. In the publicized materials, the governor has made it clear that only Christians of a particular kind are welcome to pray in a certain way. We feel that such an exclusive event does not reflect the rich tapestry of our city. Our deepest concern, however, lies in the fact that funding for this event appears to come from the American Family Association, an organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The American Family Association and its leadership have a long track record of anti-gay speech and have actively worked to discriminate against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The American Family Association and its leadership have also been stridently anti-Muslim, going so far as to question the rights of Muslim-Americans to freely organize and practice their faith. We believe it is inappropriate for our governor to organize a religious event funded by a group known for its discriminatory stances.

As religious leaders, we commit to join with all Houstonians in working to make our city a better place. We will lead our communities in prayer, meditation and spiritual practice. We ask that Gov. Perry leave the ministry to us and refocus his energy on the work of governing our state.

Earth Needs: People Possessing Less, Working Less--and Birthing Less

Ten days ago New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had an excellent commentary spotlighting the views of Paul Gilding, an Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who has an insightful new book titled The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

Gilding argues that we have reached a global population that is demanding the resources of 1.5 Earths--and that the longer we wait to tackle the problem, the more intractable will be the crises that we face. He sees the need for a growth model that will give people more time to enjoy living, but with fewer possessions. I wish I could share his optimism that "We may be slow, but we aren't stupid"--so that the size of the current problem and the obviousness of the antidote will cause global leaders to mobilize "as we do in war." We can certainly pray that Gilding is right.

Moreover, it seems even more obvious that 'possessing' fewer children is one of the critical things people will have to do to make his new model work. Friedman's column doesn't have Gilding saying much about that. But maybe his book does. Here are some excerpts from Friedman's column:

You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rates. G.F.N. measures how much land and water area we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste, using prevailing technology. On the whole, says G.F.N., we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.

This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once.

“If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. “If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”

It is also current affairs. “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said recently. What China’s minister is telling us, says Gilding, is that “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”

But Gilding is actually an eco-optimist. As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.

“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Elizabeth Warren: Why the "Big, Bad Banks" Are Very, Very Afraid--and Should Be

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy posted an excellent analysis May 28th on why the "big, bad banks" have a bevy of reasons to be afraid of Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard lawyer, University of Houston graduate and former University of Texas law professor who is charged with setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CPFB) established by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown.

A decade before the financial crisis, Warren grasped--and warned in scholarly papers and books--that banks are willing to bankrupt their customers for short-term profit and that their short-sighted greed would lead to economic collapse.

Steffy notes: "In 2006, two years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, she warned that banks' attitudes had shifted so dramatically in the past 80 years that the greatest threat to the economy wasn't customers making runs on banks, but banks making 'a run on the customers.'

"Ruining customers through excessive fees and gimmicks, driving them into foreclosure, default and bankruptcy, would lead to the same economic collapse that bank runs did during the Great Depression, she warned."

Steffy spent the rest of his column mocking the efforts of the banks' Republican lapdogs in the current Congress to badger and embarrass Warren into weakening the CPFB:

The big banks are tough.

They can handle Dodd-Frank. They can handle being labeled a "vampire squid" in the pages of Rolling Stone. They can even outlast the threat of criminal prosecutions for taking the global economy to the brink of collapse.

But what scares them the most is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who has spent years learning their secrets.

Last week, the banks' representatives in Congress grilled Warren over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a panel created in response to the financial crisis that might just give consumers a fighting chance against banks' exorbitant fees, debt spiral schemes and outright fraudulent lending practices.

Warren is a veteran of contentious congressional hearings, most recently ones she conducted as head of the oversight panel for the federal bank bailout. During those sessions, she squared off with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the government's handling of bailout funds and its claims that banks' balance sheets are sound.

So last week, when Warren didn't crumble under his badgering, Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from Bank of America's home state of North Carolina, decided to try to humiliate her. Knowing she had scheduling conflicts that had already been discussed with committee staffers, he tried to delay the hearing and when she protested, he basically called her a liar.

The lack of decorum speaks to the desperation that the big banks feel over Warren and the CFPB, an agency that she is helping to establish and that would have broad powers to act on consumers' behalf.

In other words, the banks fear Warren because she knows their games and she has the data to expose them, and the prospect of Warren running the CFPB has fostered a growing desperation in the industry.

Last week, bereft of other arguments, the congressman from Bank of America resorted to name calling.

Elizabeth Warren isn't a liar. She's one of the few people in Washington with the courage to tell the truth.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And Today's Infallible Pronouncement Is . . . Whatever I Decide Is Infallible

Despite the efforts of two Vatican Councils to contain the ultramontanist view of papal infallibility, it continues to rear its ugly head in the official pronouncements of the current pontiff.

The ultramontanists--who held that the pope should be understood as "as if heaven were always open over his head and the light shone down upon him" and that opposition to him was the sin against the Holy Spirit--could conceive of nothing more beneficial than "an infallible statement at the breakfast table each morning with their copy of the London Times."

By insisting that infallibility could only be exercised ex cathedra, i.e. from the chair of Peter under the most stringent of conditions, the First Vatican Council tried to seriously restrict the ultramontanist view. The Second Vatican Council tried to dilute it still further, by recontextualizing papal infallibility alongside of the infallibility of the church's bishops when they taught together and the infallibility of the body of the faithful as a whole.

But since the papacy of John Paul II, guided intellectually by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who succeeded John Paul II as Benedict XVI, ultramontanism has been on the ascendant once again.

The latest manifestation was the claim, made by Benedict XVI in a recent letter dismissing an Australian bishop, that John Paul II “decided infallibly and irrevocably that the church has not the right to ordain women to the priesthood.”

On May 23, 2011, the National Catholic Reporter published two postings challenging the validity and accuracy of Benedict's claim--one an article quoting several theologians who said that Benedict was on very shaky ground, the other an editorial whose title speaks for itself: Ordination ban not infallibly taught.

The editorial states the case succinctly. John Paul II never said ex cathedra that the church had no right to ordain women. What he said was that such was the constant teaching of the church's bishops over several centuries. A few years later, Ratzinger (as the Vatican's chief enforcer of orthodoxy) issued a statement saying that because it was a constant teaching of the bishops, John Paul's edict had to be definitively held by all Catholics. Now, decades after that chain of events, Ratzinger as Pope Benedict translates his interpretation of John Paul's statement into an infallible pronouncement by John Paul! What is infallible is what I say is infallible. What could be more ultramontane?

Of course, what this illustrates above all is how slippery and untenable the notion of any infallibility really is. My dissertation shows on historical, linguistic and cosmological grounds why it is impossible for any church teaching to be irreformable. (Those who are interested in the documentation should click on the link to the right of these postings.) So the real problem is that when Vatican I, in partial deference to the ultramontanists, declared that the pope possesses "that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed," it gratuitously attributed infallibility to the will of Jesus Christ. What the bishops at Vatican I refused to consider is that Jesus Christ may not have willed his church or its leaders to be infallible at all--because such a wish contradicts the metaphysical structure of the universe and future actions by the living God.

So we can continue to fight about "creeping infallibility" and try to rein it in. But even if Benedict were to buy the argument that he has misrepresented what John Paul II said, all he would have to do to overcome the problem would be to mount the chair of Peter and declare ex cathedra what John Paul attributed (inaccurately) to the constant, universal teaching of the bishops.

What really needs to be addressed is how any kind of infallibility can be sustained--philosophically, linguistically or historically. The honest answer is that it cannot be sustained under any of those tests, and that continuing to adhere to a dishonest doctrine can only result in more dishonesty.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

U.S. Clergy Sex-Abuse Report Ignores 'Arrogant Clericalism,' the Primary Cause

Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and a long-time advocate of justice and compassion for clergy sex-abuse victims, says the recently released John Jay report on the causes of sex abuse by U.S. clergy misses the mark by blaming most of the abuse on the permissive sexual culture of the 1960s and 1970s--when several other reports have concluded, accurately, that the main causes were within the Catholic Church and that the pre-eminent one was 'arrogant clericalism."

Doyle posted his commentary on the website of the National Catholic Reporter May 21, 2011. Most of the critique follows.

In the last few days I have carefully read the entire 143-page John Jay report on the causes of clergy sex abuse in the United States and have again reviewed the executive summaries and conclusions of 17 of the 27 reports on clergy sexual abuse that have been published between 1989 and 2011.

Most of these are from official sources such as the U.S. grand juries, the three Irish reports (Ferns, Ryan, Murphy) or the two Canadian reports that resulted from the Mt. Cashel debacle of the eighties. Others are from Church sources such as the National Review Board Report of 2004, The Bernardin Report of 1992 or Church sponsored reports such as the Defenbaugh Report (Chicago, 2006) or the first John Jay Report from 2004. Most of the reports contained a section on causality. None of the reports said anything about the effect of the culture of the sixties or seventies as a factor of causality but every one of them pointed to the various kinds and levels of failure by the bishops as the essential cause of the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children and minors by clerics.

Some of the reports went into more detail about socio-cultural factors that had a causal effect but none of these factors included somehow shifting the blame to the “increased deviance of society during that time” as Karen Terry said in her statement released with the report. There was unanimity about the effect of culture, but it was not the culture outside the church but the culture within. Arthur Jones hit the nail squarely on the head in his NCR column on May 18 when he named arrogant clericalism as the culture that in many ways created the offending clerics and allowed the abuse to flourish.

There is a third source of information that perhaps provides the most accurate data on clergy sexual abuse in our era and that is the data obtained by victims’ attorneys in the six thousand plus civil and criminal cases from the U.S. alone. Add to this the information from similar cases in Canada, Ireland, Australia, the U.K. and several other European countries and you have a picture that is much different than that proposed in this latest John Jay report. The report refers to the sixties and seventies as the peak period with cases dwindling off after that period. This apparently fits in with what some of the cynics have called the “Woodstock Defense.”

Those who see the main conclusions from the Executive Summary as support for the bishops’ blame-shifting tactics are probably right. Yet these conclusions are only a part of the whole story and in some ways they are of minor relevance. The finding that the majority of cases occurred in the 1960s and 1970s can be quickly challenged. It is more accurate to say that the majority of cases reported in the post 2002 period involved abuse that took place in the period from the sixties to the eighties. Its way off base to assume that the majority of incidents of abuse happened during this period. Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Paraclete community in 1947 to provide help to priests with problems. From the beginning he was treating priests with psycho-sexual issues and in a letter to a bishop he said that 3 out of every 10 priests admitted were there because they had sexually molested minors.

Fr. Gerald wrote that letter in 1964. Unfortunately it is difficult if not impossible to do a study of abuse victims between the 30’s and the 50’s but Fr. Gerald’s information leaves no doubt that sexual abuse by priests was a significant phenomenon long before the free-wheeling 60’s and 70’s. The one constant that was present throughout the entire period from before the 60’s to the turn of the millennium has been the cover-up by the bishops and the disgraceful treatment of victims. The John Jay researchers were commissioned by the bishops to look into the reasons why priests molested and violated minors. They were not asked to figure out why this molestation and violation was allowed to happen. That would have been deadly for the bishops and they knew it.

Nevertheless the researchers could not avoid the blatant role played by the hierarchy. In this regard the report should not be written off as largely either irrelevant or enabling of the bishops’ never-ending campaign to avoid facing their responsibility square on. That’s why it’s important to read the whole report and not depend on the Executive Summary or Karen Terry’s statement or the statements of any of the bishops or church sponsored media outlets. Well into the body there is recognition of the real issues that have caused the anger and are the basis for the thousands of lawsuits and official reports. The section entitled “Mid-1990’s Diocesan Response” on pages 86-91contains a sobering antidote to the soft-peddling about priests who lost their way in the Woodstock Era. To their credit the research team included information critical of the bishops’ responses on several levels. A few quotes:

The failure of some diocesan leaders to take responsibility for the harms of the abuse by priests was egregious in some cases. (p. 89)

Parishioners were not told, or were misled about the reason for the abuser’s transfer (p. 89)

Diocesan leaders rarely provided information to local civil authorities and sometimes made concerted efforts to prevent reports of sexual abuse by priests from reaching law enforcement even before the statute of limitations expired. (p. 89)

Diocesan officials tried to keep their files devoid of incriminating evidence . (p. 89)

Diocesan leaders attempted to deflect personal liability for retaining abusers by relying on therapists’ recommendations or employing legalistic arguments about the status of priests. (p. 89)

Dioceses, the interviewee reported, would intimidate priests who brought charges against other priests; he reported that the law firm hired by the diocese wiretapped his phone and went through his trash. (p. 90).

The interviewee was a priest-victim who had come forward in 1991.

These citations do not represent exceptions. This was the operating procedure that was standard throughout the institutional Church until the public revelations that began in 1984 and reached a boiling point in 2002 caused widespread media attention, legal scrutiny and public outrage which in turn forced the bishops to change their tactics. The John Jay report refers to the organizational steps taken by the bishops in response to the “crisis” and points out that no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and as a result there are no comparable data from other institutions (Executive Summary, p. 5).

The report gave short shrift to mandatory celibacy and the all-male environment of the clerical world. This will feed right into the defenses of those who try to claim that the problems are all from outside influences. Yet the influence of mandatory celibacy and the sub-culture of which it is an integral part play a major role in the socialization and maturation processes of the men who will eventually violate minors. The clerical culture should have been the subject of the 1.8 million dollar venture because if looked at closely and honestly it would have yielded information that not only provided believable reasons for the abuse nightmare but valuable though radical steps to take to avoid similar travesties in the future. That would have been much too dangerous for the hierarchical establishment though, because without doubt, it would point to needed fundamental changes.

There will be a variety of levels of both praise and criticism of this document. Among the more valuable will be the critical responses of other academic professionals, especially sociologists, which will help place the document in a more realistic and relevant light.

The report was released along with statements by Karen Terry, the lead investigator, Diane Knight, chair of the National Review Board and Blase Cupich, chair of the Bishop’s Committee for the Protection of Children. The most disturbing sentence of all of the documents presented with the report is from Karen Terry’s statement: “The problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States is largely historical, and the bulk of cases occurred decades ago.” I am quite certain that Dr. Terry had no idea of how offensive this statement is to the thousands of victims who were abused decades ago and who still live with the intense pain that never goes away. These people aren’t “historical” they are now. What happened to them years or decades ago is still real and still destructive in their lives.

While the bishops and their defenders bask in the illusion that this report validates their standard defenses and their self-affirmation for the procedures and policies they have created to try to heal the wound, the reality of the “phenomenon of sexual abuse” is something this report will not be able to answer. What is important is not why the thousands of clerics went off the tracks and raped and violated tens of thousands of innocent children.

What is important is what the institutional Church has done, or to be more precise, not done, to help heal the thousands of victims who still live in isolation and pain. More than anything else these men and women have had their very souls violated and in the words of some, murdered. Rather than go to such great lengths to try to exonerate themselves the bishops could have done what they should have done…..try, at least, to begin to understand the profound depth of the spiritual wounds inflicted on these many men and women, once innocent and trusting boys and girls. Abandon the insincere promises, the endless efforts to hide the secrets and the debasing legal strategies to pound the victims into submission. Once the official Church figures out how to authentically respond to its victims, and actually does it, then and only then will this abominable disgrace start to slowly move towards being historical.