Monthly Archives: March 2013

Atheists, Pagans, and Christians

Atheists are usually secular humanists – focused on the immediate world of human experience. Pagans are more like Christians because they both believe that there is a spiritual realm outside of human experience.

I know, at first blush, it seems logical that atheists would be the ones who are more like pagans.

Instead of juggling definitions, it is easier to understand these relationships from an historical perspective. As I explain in my book, Perils of Empire, like most pagans, the Romans did not understand why many things happened – people fell ill and died suddenly, some soldiers survived many battles while others died in their first skirmish, winter came and went – so they felt that gods or spirits must control these events and did so without seeming to care much about the fate of mere individuals. Through ceremonies, the many different pagan cults acknowledged the power of these gods, requested their assistance, and gave people a way to express uncertainty about their fate. This went on for thousands of years and was deeply embedded in all human cultures.

As the Christian religion developed and grew, many Christian holidays and traditions were borrowed from the pagan ceremonies already prevalent in the ancient world. Appropriating pagan-like traditions (for example the Christmas holiday occurs very close to the pagan solstice holiday) made it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity.

In addition, one of the attractions of the new religion was the idea that unlike pagan gods, the Christian God cared about you as an individual. Note that, in The Iliad, the gods openly meddle in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, playing out their own feuds with no thought about the consequences for humans. A God who was eager to provide human believers with life after death was a very positive difference.

In contrast to this ancient contest, modern secular atheists don’t have a lot of ceremonies or teachings or traditions. Most atheists are “humanists” in some way – simple truths about the dignity and value of human life form the basis of their ethical beliefs and behavior.

Now, some atheists are “spiritualists” who consciously take up pagan rituals to create ties with old cultures and with nature. However, modern spiritualists don’t literally believe that pagan gods or spirits exist outside of the human realm. Remember, ancient pagans felt that nature really was populated with gods who were independent of humans and did their own thing. Modern spiritualists are more descendents of Jung’s ideas about a spiritual connection between humans and other living things – some sort of collective unconscious – so in that sense they are not truly pagan.

As a result, I think Christians, who believe in a God who exists outside of the human realm, are more like pagans than either atheists or spiritualists, who have a more human-based ethical system. Keep in mind that both monotheism and polytheism are religious perspectives; their differences are over the number of Gods and their relationship with humans.

 

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This Economy isn’t Working

Full time jobs are hard to come by and many people have stopped working all together. Feeble economic growth is imposing hardships on people of all ages.

Millions of people may never work again.

Here are three charts that dramatically demonstrate our jobs problem. The first shows that the percentage of the population working in full-time jobs is at its lowest levels since the 1950s. In 2007, just as the housing bubble was bursting, more than 52% of the adult population had a full time job. By 2009, six million of those jobs were gone – and we have not gained any of them back during the economic “recovery” that began in 2009. Just 47% of the adult population had a full time job in February of 2013.

What are those six million people without full time work doing? The next chart shows there has been an increase of about 400,000 part time jobs since the recession ended. The next chart shows that the drop in the unemployment rate is largely the result of people leaving the workforce. In 2007, before Bear Stearns collapsed and started the financial crisis, 66% of the working-age population was employed or seeking employment. Today, just five years later, a little over 63% of that group of people is in the labor force and the trend line is almost straight down – about five million people have retired prematurely, work entirely in the underground economy, live at home with mom and dad and watch television, became homeless, or do chores at home while a partner works.

This is frightening, because we know that most of these individuals will never work again, or at least not in regular, full-time jobs. I remember the fear I felt in 2009 and 2010 that if I, as a worker over the age of 55, lost my job, I might never find a steady job again – I would be left to wander on the fringe of society. Keep in mind how much a person’s sense of self-worth, pride, and energy is wrapped up in feeling like a useful, paid participant in society. At least five million Americans don’t feel that way anymore.

So far, theirs is a quiet desperation. Since the late 1960s, women have been entering the labor force in large numbers. Note on the last chart how the labor participation rate rose steadily after 1966, from 59% to a high of 67% in 2000. That means two-thirds of households used to have two wage earners and the five million lost Americans are, in most cases, being supported by other members of the household and by programs like food stamps. In fact, food stamp participation has soared from 28,223,000 in 2008 to 47,791,996 in December of 2012.

Tragically, the sequestration budget cuts will chop away at some of the public supports for these families. The general attitude toward these individuals now on the fringe is similar to that of the Lawrence mill owner talking about the immigrants who worked 14 hour days in his textile factories, “they don’t suffer, they can’t even speak English.”

The Big Banks, Big Media Screen Play

Big Banks and hedge funds usually have a cozy relationship with government regulators; a situation that Congress supports and the media seldom reveals to the public.

The term for this is “regulatory capture” and each actor has a role to play.

We begin our story with an article last week in the business section of the Boston Globe that was written by a journalist with the Associated Press. The article informed readers that Mary Jo White, the president’s nominee to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (which regulates stocks and bonds and the companies that trade them) is a former federal prosecutor. During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, she said “Strong enforcement is … essential to the integrity of our financial markets.” The article concluded that the president’s nomination of a former prosecutor sent “a signal that he wants the government to get tougher with Wall Street.”

However, readers of Truthout, a much smaller group of Americans, discovered that Mary Jo White left government more than ten years ago to join a Wall Street law firm and represent clients such as JPMorgan Chase, UBS, General Electric, and a former Goldman Sachs board member who is appealing an insider trading conviction. Her role at the firm was to “concentrate on internal investigations and defense of companies and individuals accused by the government of involvement in white collar corporate crime or Securities and Exchange Commission and civil securities law violations.”

While serving as SEC Chairperson, she will be receiving $42,000 a month in retirement pay from her former firm, Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, which pays partner retirement benefits out of its current operating income – i.e. fees from large banks and corporations.

The Senate Banking Committee did not find this apparent conflict of interest troubling. In fact, the Washington Post noted that no senator voiced opposition and some of the time was spent discussing Ms. White’s active recreational habits such as riding motorcycles.

After exchanging pleasantries with Ms. White, the Republicans on the Banking Committee spent the rest of the day attacking Richard Cordray, who the president re-nominated to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These ever aggressive defenders of big corporations and big banks denounced the Bureau and said they would filibuster Mr. Cordray’s nomination.

I believe this situation presents a good case study of regulatory capture in action. The less obvious, but still important things to note are:

(1) even Democratic liberals on the committee – including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Charles Schumer of New York – were not willing to challenge the president’s nominee or Wall Street influence, and

(2) voters who read only the Associated Press account of the hearing would have no idea of the compromised politics involved in the nomination.

I believe that regulatory capture, which happens everywhere in Washington, can only be prevented by interventions carried out by a political movement that pressures Democrats and demands media attention.  We can not wait for them to stand up to Wall Street and big business.

 

Drone Wars U.S.A.

We know a lot more about the Obama drone warfare program after a month of revelations and the whole discussion is making me a little nervous.

Unbelievably, the drone wars are coming home.

My uneasy month began in early February, when the Department of Justice released a white paper that provides the legal rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of aiding terrorists. Contrary to the general impression that President Obama reviews important targets for drone strikes, the white paper says that an “informed, high level official” of the U.S. government can determine if an individual may, at some time in the future, plan and/or carry out a terrorist attack. That official can, acting alone, authorize a drone strike on that individual. The white paper claims this power does not violate the Fifth Amendment, which says U.S. citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This is yet another step in the growing threat to our civil liberties.

Then, in response to a question by Republican Senator Ted Cruz at a March 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. tried to avoid saying whether he thought it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military to use a drone to kill an American citizen “sitting in a café” in the United States. When Holder finally stopped talking in circles and admitted it would not be constitutional, Cruz said he was glad to finally get a clear answer and added that he would introduce a bill barring the use of drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. Holder responded that the bill might be an unconstitutional intrusion on presidential power.

How has it come to pass that Senators and the Attorney General are publically debating the constitutionality of using drone strikes against Americans who have offended the government?

Once again, wars of empire in far-off lands are generating dangerous consequences back home. It is a theme repeated throughout history. In my book, I show how, when the Roman Republic conquered other nations, the strains of governing hostile peoples and the unintended consequences of ill-gotten new wealth eventually created turmoil and then civil war.

Now, as if following the lead of the federal government, local and state police departments are starting to use drones to keep an eye out for crime and other subversive activities.

At the core of this threat is our lazy willingness to let the U.S. government become more and more dependent on drone strikes as its primary foreign policy tool. We pretend to believe that these strikes are precise attacks on dangerous terrorists and ignore mounting evidence that large numbers of innocent civilians are being randomly killed by these not so surgical explosions. We turn our back on questions about justice and war and suddenly the debate is over whether to shoot at us.

The question of who is the enemy is a slippery slope when you are stuck in a never-ending war against “enemies of the state.” Once you begin the slide, you never know where you might end up.

Are Those February Jobs any Good?

236,000 new jobs in February is great news; but many of those newly hired employees will be receiving lower pay and fewer benefits than they did in their last positions.

This is a classic good news – bad news story.

Adding more than 200,000 jobs in one month is enough to drive down the unemployment rate and contains the promise of more hiring in future months. Five long years since Bear Stearns collapsed in the early days of the financial crisis, it is good to have some optimism.

Unfortunately, these new jobs are unlikely to alter the frightening slide in the standard of living of the average American. A 2012 study by the National Employment Law Project found that about 60% of the jobs lost during the economic downturn were mid-wage occupations such as billing clerks and electricians. In contrast, more than half of the new jobs (58%) created since the recovery are what the study classifies as low-wage positions such as retail clerks, food preparers, and home care aides.

This lop-sided job growth, along with high unemployment and employers refusing to offer significant wage increases, have combined to pole axe family incomes. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 2007 and 2011, the median U.S. household income, “adjusted for inflation,” fell 8% from $54,489 to $50,054. That drop means that people are struggling to pay growing food costs, the soaring cost of college, and the steady increase in health care premiums and deductions.

We need more than new jobs; we need a whole new re-definition of the financial relationship between employers and workers. For that to happen, we need a social movement that makes the declining standard of living for ordinary people the principal political issue in the United States.

Hugo Chavez’s Death is an Historic Opportunity

Hugo Chavez’s legacy is still unwritten.  History shows that reformers have long lasting impact when they leave behind successors who can protect and build on the changes they sponsored.

President Chavez was not perfect.

His fourteen years of rule were marked by administrative confusion, wasteful spending, and an erratic personal style.  However, all of these failings were overshadowed by his consistent attempts to make life better for the average person and to shift power away from a parasitic aristocracy and give it to the vast majority of Venezuelans.

Since Chavez became president in 1999, the percentage of people living in poverty in Venezuela has fallen from 50% to 27% and the CIA World Factbook admits that “social investment has led to better living standards, including increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation.”

With his death comes an opportunity for new people with new talents and ideas to solidify these gains, continue to build popular participation in government, and improve any reform programs that are poorly managed.  The opposition party, Table of Democratic Unity, representing the social and economic elites who used to run Venezuela for themselves, is a distinct minority party now.  Its presidential candidate lost to Chavez by a wide margin in last fall’s elections, while Chavez-endorsed candidates were elected governors in 20 of the country’s 23 states.

Julius Caesar squandered his legacy as a leader of the reforming populares group by choosing as his lieutenant and successor the brutal thug Marc Anthony – a man incapable of rallying the common people (in spite of what Shakespeare wrote) or of peacefully participating in the Roman Republic’s electoral system.  Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was enhanced when Harry Truman’s victory in 1948 solidified the New Deal Coalition.

Now, Hugo Chavez’s successors in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, a coalition of populist groups he brought together in 2007, must choose between working together to continue the reform movement or splitting apart to follow their own small ambitions.  President Chavez’s legacy hangs in the balance.