Stiglitz on Dangers from Wealth Inequality in America

April 7, 2011 by

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at Columbia University. He was recently interviewed on Democracy Now by Amy Goodman. He discussed his recent claim, in an article in Vanity Fair, that America is rapidly becoming “Of the 1, by the 1, for the 1%”. He explained that while income and wealth have increased dramatically for the top 1% of Americans, that of the rest of us has been static or declining. He continues to explain many of the bad outcomes from this that are already occurring (decreasing education levels our children relative to the rest of the world, failure of many Democrats to see that taxing the top 1% would permit continuation of the social spending now being threatened, manipulation of governmental regulations by the very wealthy to protect their gains from taxation, special deals permitting cheap mining on public lands by private firms, and still others. For a great looks by a very respected economist at what is so terribly wrong in our country now, read the interview at http://www.democracynow.org/2011/4/7/nobel_economist_joseph_stiglitz_assault_on

Tom Ehrich on Egypt and the United States

February 12, 2011 by

Tom Ehrich, noted Christian blogger and church wellness worker, just put out a new edition of his daily newsletter. In this he points out similarities in what happened in Egypt that led to their revolution and what has happened in the United States that probably should lead to revolution or major change in politics and policies in our own country. He speaks of the great power of wealth here and the injustice of efforts to further harm the middle class and the poor. Read his newsletter here.

2010 in review

January 7, 2011 by

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 18 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 33 posts. There were 4 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 793kb.

The busiest day of the year was April 6th with 63 views. The most popular post that day was Teaching Baptists about their heritage of secular government.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were chbc.spruz.com, crescenthillbaptistchurch.org, facebook.com, mail.yahoo.com, and baptisthistory.org.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for economic injustice in america, moral entrepreneurs, chbc blog, what do people really want, and baptists.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Teaching Baptists about their heritage of secular government April 2010
14 comments

2

On Change in our Church June 2010
10 comments

3

Were the Founding Fathers Christians? June 2010
6 comments

4

Moral Panic and Moral Entrepreneurs August 2010
3 comments

5

What do people really want? February 2010
9 comments

Review of Michael Sandel’s book “Justice”

January 4, 2011 by

Justice: what’s the right thing to do? Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Posted by John Birkimer.

Sandel looks at major approaches to defining or describing justice, looks at challenges to several of them, and suggests what he sees as the best approach to achieving justice. (Justice, as used here, is more “distributive” than punitive justice.)

Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, about 1800) argued for whatever led to the greatest happiness for the greatest number, happiness being whatever produces pleasure and/or avoids pain.   Objections to this approach include (1) this can run roughshod over individuals. Throwing Christians to lions, if leading to great happiness for many Romans, could be justified by utilitarianism, as could torturing the daughter of a terrorist to force him to tell where he hid a bomb that will soon detonate, and keeping an unhappy child prisoner and miserable if that kept a large town quite happy. (2) This approach assumes a common metric can be found, that all values can be captured by a common currency of value, but many argue it cannot. Human lives probably cannot be reduced to a dollar value, for instance.

Libertarians argue the basis of justice is individual freedom. Each person should be free to do whatever they want so long as that does not harm others. Governments should be limited to enforcing contracts, protecting individual property, and preserving peace. No laws should exist to protect people from themselves, to affect morality, or to redistribute income. Laws regarding prostitution or abortion should not exist, nor should minimum wage laws nor social security, all these violate individual liberty. (This view grew as a reaction to the welfare state, but was previewed by John Stuart Mill in his attempt to defend utilitarianism. Mill also previewed later views of the value of individual life and the notion of virtues higher than utility or individual liberty.)  Milton Friedman in the 1960’s propounded libertarianism, as did Robert Nozik with regard to limitations on government involvement in markets and economics.) The core of libertarianism is the notion that we own ourselves, our bodies, and our earnings, and thus the government has no right to take or limit any of these. In the extreme, this view would permit not just the selling of a kidney for money, for whatever purpose the buyer wanted, and even the selling of a person’s second kidney though it would lead to that person’s death. Even voluntarily letting another kill you and eat you would be justifiable to libertarians.

Sandel introduces the notion of civic virtue and the common good by discussing whether it it more moral to draft people into the military or to hire people into it via market principles. He cites others who point out that it is nearly completely those from lower income families who volunteer. He also points out that we “draft” jurors rather than hire them because we believe it is a civic duty for them to serve, among other reasons.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed an alternative approach to justice. He argued that individual human beings are worthy of our respect because they are reasoning beings. Kant rejected the views of utilitarians and of those who want to use the distribution of resources for encouraging “good” virtues as diminishing freedom. But for him freedom was a bit complicated. Simply obeying one’s urges and desires was not freedom; this was little different from what animals do. For Kant one was only free when obeying “a law one has given oneself”. Those laws needed to meet two criteria: (1) if they were universalized, would that produce an effective or ineffective outcome? And (2) they must always treat persons with dignity, that is as ends and not as means.

Example of the first: Can you lie to protect a friend from someone at the door who will murder them if possible? No, because lying creates an outcome when universalized where nobody could trust others to be telling the truth. (But you can say a true thing that misleads: “I saw my friend at the grocery store just an hour ago.”) Example of the second: Is casual sex, if mutually satisfactory, ever moral? No, because it involves using the other as a means to satisfaction, not as an end. In marriage, the long-term commitment to one-another makes this acceptable given all the other ways each affirms the dignity of the other. So Kant’s system has morality following from acting according to the duty to respect the dignity of all humans. Universal human rights follow from this reasoning. Kant argued then that we live under an imagined social contract, one that hold each individual as equally important, with equal dignity. But he did not spell out what that contract would include.

In the latter half of the 20th century John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) moved in that direction. He asked what principles we would agree to in a condition of initial equality. He suggested we assume a “veil of ignorance”, such that we would not know our own station in life (smart or not, rich or poor, of proud majority or despised minority, etc.) and ask what principles we would then agree to. Most, he believed, would adopt principles which protect the weak and minority groups.  He believed the contract that would emerge would (1) guarantee basic freedoms for all, like freedom of speech and religion, and would also (2) permit only those social and economic inequalities that work for the good of the least well-off members of the society. (The rich, the very intelligent, the athletically gifted and so forth would be permitted to exercise their abilities but would receive for their efforts only enough to keep them motivated and working, with the rest going to the rest of society.)

Rawls’ views produce just two categories of moral responsibility: natural duties which require no consent (harm no one, treat all with respect, etc.) and voluntary obligations which do require consent (I’ll work for you for x amount of pay, etc.) But this view would leave no duties for us as members of our family, or citizens of this country.  Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue (1981) argued that we do have such duties or responsibilities, by virtue of what family, what place, and what country we are born in and are part of. He suggested we are story-telling beings, and the contexts we find ourselves in do in fact give us such responsibilities. Sandel describes family obligations (parent to child, child to parent), obligations to the town we are from, the same to others of our religion (Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews), and obligations to help those from our own country over those from other places. Feelings of solidarity explain why some argued the Vietnam war was unworthy of America and the kind of country we strive to be. Robert E. Lee sided with his state Virginia in spite of his great love for our country. Brothers sometimes will not aid in criminal investigations of one or the other.

This latest view is at odds with those that stress our being free individuals with only those responsibilities we freely accept. But if we feel pride or responsibilities to our families or our country, we seem to be exhibiting connection based on who we are and what stories we are part of.

Aristotle had argued we should distribute resources in ways that promote virtue. Later philosophers resisted, feeling (correctly) that such could be stultifying and would involve enforcing someone’s notion of the good life over someone else’s different notion. Sandel endorses Aristotle’s view, but first detours to consider whether those views that argue for liberty and government’s neutrality regarding notions of morality and religious views can be achieved. He looks at the issues of legal abortion and embryonic stem cell research, suggesting that those who favor both must disagree with the Catholic church’s position that human life begins at conception, a view that honestly engages the religious objections to both. (Thus Sandel argues we should in fact let religious or moral considerations be involved in our disagreements. We may come to better agreement or we may not, but we will not know unless we try.) He continues the detour by looking at the issue of homosexual marriage. Here he suggests we must, as Aristotle had argued, look at the purpose of marriage. Those who argue it is to procreate are wrong; no effort to determine if heterosexuals plan to have children or are able to do so is made by the state or others. Sandel argues the purpose of marriage is to honor the long-term commitment a couple is making, and this honor should be available to all. (By now he has endorsed using resources and sanctions to encourage virtues we desire.)

Late in the book he summarizes then rejects the utilitarian and the libertarian views, even those acknowledging human rights. He says:

A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.

Thus ends my summary of Sandel’s book. But here for continued reading is a link to an interesting blog on relationships between the  biblical prophets and current notions of human rights:  Link is here

Another Great Article on Threats from Wealth Inequality

November 25, 2010 by

I just finished reading another great article on income and wealth inequality. Besides documenting the injustice of the inequality and the staggering extent and growth of it recently, Pam Martens shows how this wealth inequality will likely lead to inflation eating away at the very wealth contributing to the initial problems. Read this to learn more.

Robert Reich on the Threat to American Democracy

October 23, 2010 by

(Posted by John Birkimer)

Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President Obama’s transition advisory board. He just authored a new blog titled “The Perfect Storm That Threatens American Democracy”. He lists three great threats: income inequality (The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us), a relatively few of the very wealthy are buying elections and doing it legally and secretly, and many Americans are in a very bad way economically, many without jobs and/or losing their homes, but Washington says nothing can be done about it because we don’t have the money, even though the very wealthy pay lower tax rates than many of the rest of us.

(And Americans appear ready to put the Republicans back in control of Congress.) Read Reich’s article and add any comments to this blog.
Here is his article.

Bill Thomason’s Essay on Al Mohler Open Letter

October 3, 2010 by

Here is a link to Uncommon Descent: Serving the Intelligent Design Community, featuring an article by Clive Hayden titled “Albert Mohler’s Open Letter to Carl Giberson”. A quote from the article explains: “Al Mohler has written an interesting open letter to Karl Giberson, titled “On Darwin and Darwinism: A Letter to Professor Giberson“, which is a response to Giberson’s article at The Huffington Post, titled “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth“. The article includes links to both Mohler’s open letter and Giberson’s piece in The Huffington Post.

Bill Thomason, of our church, has written an essay in response to Mohler’s argument with Giberson about evolution and the age of the earth. Below is that essay.

A RESPONSE TO AL MOHLER

Al Mohler’s insistence that the Bible and science are in irreconcilable conflict debases the Bible, impugns the character of God, and demonstrates an egregious misunderstanding of science and its methods.

It debases the Bible by turning it into something it was never intended to be – an authority on matters of science.   The Bible is authoritative for Christians because we believe it is the human witness to what God has done in history for the salvation of the world.  Its narrative arc is creation, sin, redemption.  The Bible not only tells this story of redemption, it is also an invitation – for us, its contemporary readers – to become actors in that continuing divine/human drama.  Becoming a Christian means that, when we hear this story, it takes hold of us and will not let us go, so that we become actors in the drama, no longer audience members, merely observing.  When Fundamentalists, like President Mohler, insist that the Bible is authoritative because it is without error in every claim it makes, they divert our attention from the real intent of the biblical witness and bog us down in useless arguments, such as whether or not the world was created in six, 24 hour days, 6000 years ago and whether or not Adam and Eve were real people.   As Professor Karl Giberson pointed out (in Peter Smith’s Courier-Journal article of September 4), that position is guaranteed to drive thoughtful people away from Christian commitment.

Mohler’s position impugns the character of God by making God the grandest liar in all of reality.  (Satan is supposed to be the arch deceiver, but in comparison with Mohler’s god, he is an amateurish piker in the lying department.)  President Mohler says that (his) god created the world so that it looks old and then (though Mohler doesn’t say this) created us with minds that, in examining this old-appearing world, would inevitably conclude that it took billions of years to arrive at its present state.  Then, this god turns around and condemns us to hell for using the minds he gave us to draw erroneous conclusions about the deceptive world he created.  With a god like that, we don’t need a devil to lead us astray.  Mohler’s position is, in fact, a contradiction of the classical Christian position that God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) and was utterly free to create whatever universe God wanted.  The implication of this orthodox doctrine is that if we want to know what God’s creation is like, then we have to actually examine it to see how it is structured and to discover what laws govern its operations.   It is likely that modern science could only develop in a culture that assumed this sort of belief about the origins of the universe, and that is probably one of the reasons science arose in the West.  Many scientists today, in spite of the Richard Dawkinses of the world, believe that in investigating the world through scientific methodology they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

Finally, President Mohler’s position displays an egregious misunderstanding of science and its methods.  Science proceeds by asking questions about the efficient causes of things.  That is, scientists observe a natural  phenomenon and formulate a hypothesis that might explain that phenomenon as a natural occurrence.  Then, they test their hypothesis by further observation and, when possible, experiment.  Using those new observations, they then reformulate their hypothesis or discard it altogether, because it becomes obvious that the hypothesis doesn’t work.  Then, they formulate a new hypothesis and repeat the process.  (Some sciences by their very nature cannot run experiments: cosmologists, looking for the origins of the universe, can only observe the effects of that initial event, not run an experiment in which they create universes to see how it occurred.)  The assumption that makes scientific investigation work is that there actually is a correlation between empirical observation and the mental constructs of scientific theories.  One of the most amazing findings of modern science is that the universe has a mathematical structure and that our minds are capable of constructing (or is it that we discover?) mathematical systems that actually describe the empirical nature of creation.  To say that the methods of science cannot discover the nature of the physical world is to destroy the very foundations of science.  President Mohler may value scientific inventions and progress, but if his understanding of science prevails, then there will be no future invention or progress.

Al Mohler has done a signal disservice  to the cause of Christ.  One day Christians will recognize that fundamentalism is just the latest heresy to plague their faith.

Bill Thomason, Ph. D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1972

(posted for Bill Thomason by John Birkimer)

Income Gains under Dem vs. Repub Presidents

September 16, 2010 by

Dani Rodrik’s weblog for March 31st 2008 included a graph from a then-soon-to-be-published book by a Princeton political scientist named Larry Bartels that showed average annual growth in income for the five quintiles (or fifths) of American earners from 1948 to 2005.  The data are shown for years under Democratic and also under Republican presidents. see the weblog and graph here

The very striking thing about these date is that they show a somewhat flat growth percentage under Democratic presidents, dropping from a bit above 2.5% for the lowest quintile to just above 2% for the highest, while they show a steep increase under Republican Presidents from just about half a percentage for the lowest quintile to about 2% for the top quintile. Under Democratic presidents gain in income percentage-wise is fairly constant across all groups, but under Republican presidents the wealthier gain more and the poor gain very little. Also strikingly, the gain averaged across all groups is greater under the Democrats.

Republicans in Congress like to grumble about Democrats practicing class warfare anytime the Democrats try to do anything to try to redress any of the economic imbalance that has grown so substantially over the last 40 years, a problem that Alan Greespan has commented on thusly: “As I’ve often said… this [increasing income inequality] is not the type of thing which a democratic society—a capitalist democratic society—can really accept without addressing.” – Alan Greenspan, June 2005. See this link The share of income accumulated by the top 1% by 2005 was greater than at any time since 1928, with the top 1% increasing by 1765 from 1979 to 2005 while that of the poorest 20% dropped.

So it appears that the Republicans have been engaged in class warfare since 1948 or so, and that they have very substantially been winning that war! is it too late? Has big money so taken hold of our political processes that this growing inequality cannot be reversed? Is the class war really over, and the very rich and their political cronies have won?

(Posted by John Birkimer)

Great sermon by Pastor Greg Pope

September 2, 2010 by

Pastor Greg preached a great sermon last Sunday, August 29th, on the proposed mosque in New York City and why we, as Baptists, should be especially quick to argue for the rights of everyone to worship when and where they wish. Read the sermon at this link: here

Posted by John Birkimer

Outreach Experiment: Church Hunting

August 21, 2010 by

I am stuck away from Louisville for an extended period while I attend a school. I’ve been visiting different churches around my temporary home-away-from-home, looking for new ideas that my be helpful for our church, and sending reports back to the CHBC outreach team and staff. A couple of them have asked me to provide these reports to a larger audience, so I’m posting them here, after removing the names of the churches I visited.

Episode 1:  # Church 01# (Disciples of Christ) June 27, 2010

This is a relatively small church, probably a little smaller than CHBC.

The website was OK but not great. They have two worship services: an 8:30 “traditional” service, then Sunday school, then an 11AM “contemporary” service.

Of course, I attended the 8:30 (no surprise there for those who know me). I was the only person under 50 years old in attendance, except for some grandchildren. There were about 60 people present total. I should have stayed to do a headcount at the 11AM service to compare attendance and ages, but didn’t think of it at the time. The website recommended nice clothes for the 8:30 service, while the 11:00 service is casual, but several people at the 8:30 service were dressed casually anyway. The lay leader (DoC churches seem to always have a weekly lay leader who sits at the pulpit with the pastor and leads part of the service) was wearing a T-shirt and sandals.

Out in the narthex, there was a table promoting a church program to provide clean water in the third world.

DoC (Disciples of Christ) churches serve communion every Sunday, so they are pretty skilled at it. They pass a tray that has both wafers and juice. They use a regular communion juice tray and put a little bowl in the middle.  Shotglasses are around the outside, and the wafers are in the bowl in the middle. This is smart for two reasons: You only have to go around once, and the trays are lighter than the usual juice trays because there are fewer shotglasses to make room for the bowl, so it is easier for the less-strong members to pass.

Even though they played traditional hymns, they had screens above the podium where they projected the hymn lyrics, so you can read off the screen like karaoke instead of using the hymnal. This is very common in churches that sing contemporary music, I guess that since they use the same technology at the 11AM service, they figured they might as well use it at 8:30 too. A few members read out of the hymnal anyway. Maybe they have vision problems seeing the screen, or it might be as a silent protest against the screen. Just guessing. This has obvious advantages: Everyone is looking up instead of down into the hymnal, and you would not be restrained to the hymnal list or putting the hymn lyrics in the bulletin. But this requires much more work from the A/V booth, especially in preparation. It looks like this church hires a professional A/V tech to run the sound and video.

In the back of the sanctuary was a small “comfort room” where parents could take crying children. It had a big window to the sanctuary and audio piped in so the parents there could see and hear the service.

The sermon was nothing exciting or controversial, basically a fairly standard take on the weekly scripture verse. It didn’t reveal any political or philosophical perspective.

The choir was a little small, and the choir sat next to the pastor, not behind him. When the choir sang, the pastor would step over into the choir and sing as a part of it.

As soon as the service was over, I was surrounded by friendly people welcoming me. There was no way to escape without being steered to the coffee pot and then to a Sunday school class. They weren’t pushy, they were just super nice.

I filled out the friendship register completely, to see how it would be handled. A letter from the church arrived the next day. It was a form letter, but the pastor hand-wrote a note on it that referenced our conversation.

My second weekend is back here in Kentucky for the 4th of July holiday. I’ll send a report on the church I visit next week.