Thursday, October 22, 2009

False News. Fox Liar Updates. Faux Nose. “We Lie, You Act On It.”

The latest BS from Fox “News” really gets my goat—but maybe that’s what they’re trying to do. Fox’s “reporting” that the Obama White House has an “enemies list” (just like the Nixon Administration) is almost bad as their constant references to Socialism, Marxism, and Communism. To Compare Obama’s refusal to be “interviewed” by Fox to Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” is purely deceitful and intentionally and knowingly designed to subvert the President and his political agenda. Nixon really did have an enemies list, and he and his staff utilized criminal activities, lies, slander, and extra-constitutional powers to destroy or undermine them. Obama’s refusal to go on Fox does not resemble Nixon’s behavior in the least! Fox is intent on whipping up anti-Obama fervor with any means available to them. That is certainly their right as a private organization, but they should at least be held to a standard of telling the truth if they are going to pretend to be a News organization. Unfortunately, they continue to get away with blatant lies and intentional mischaracterizations.

Fox’s (non-cable) license(s) to broadcast are controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has the power to set standards and revoke abusers. Broadcasters are forbidden to use a certain seven words made famous by Lenny Bruce, but apparently they can get away with any kind of seditious lie about the President of the United States. This seems to me like a double standard. And it seems to me that truth in reporting is a good deal more important than prosecuting for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction or the use of the “F” word.

The FCC has the power to regulate this sort of thing. Why isn’t it doing its job to ensure that reporting is truly “fair and balanced”? When public opinion is shaped by lies, what hope is there for Democracy?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Accountability and Justice for All

President Obama is being careful not to appear vindictive or partisan concerning the potential prosecution of Bush administration officials and CIA personnel for crimes related to torture and abuse of suspected terrorists. I understand the fine political line he is walking, but he is ignoring both principle and historic precedent. The argument that a soldier who is “just following orders,” and is therefore innocent of the crimes he commits, was debunked at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. In that case, Nazi soldiers and SS guards from the concentration camps were held accountable for their crimes even though they were “following orders.”

The principle here is that human beings—if they are to participate in civil society—need to behave in ways that are consistent with basic human values of dignity, respect, and the sacredness of life; and that even in extreme situations individual conscience must play a role. Prison guards at Abu Ghraib were prosecuted because they showed a blatant and sadistic disregard for the dignity and safety of the prisoners. Yet, their behavior was not inconsistent with policies (or the intentional lack of them) handed down from the highest levels of the Bush Administration.

In the case of waterboarding and other forms of torture and abuse inflicted on “suspected terrorists” (some of whom died, and many of whom were later proven to be completely innocent), the perpetrators were following “policies” handed down directly from the White House. But those policies, crafted in secret, were wrong, and they were illegal. This is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of law and of the most fundamental principles of our democracy. “Equal justice for all” doesn’t only mean that everyone’s rights must be equally protected. It also means that everyone must be held legally accountable to the same standard of behavior. Anyone in the Bush administration, or any other administration, who authorized criminal behavior—as well as those who, following orders, committed the crimes of torture and abuse—should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Our principles, our humanity, and our national integrity demand it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Funding for Amtrak a Blessing

What a breath of fresh air that we finally have an administration that supports Amtrak. The beleaguered rail system has been demeaned and starved for so long it’s amazing there’s anything left of it. Now, perhaps, it can start serving a broader purpose and take some of the pressure off air travel and its gargantuan environmental footprint. It’s been hard to find much sympathy for Amtrak among the general public, so effective has been the propaganda against it. But one circumstance in particular has always provided an opportunity to think more charitably about the virtues of rail: weather-related delays at airports. Having been a victim of innumerable such delays (mostly at O’Hare, which seems to be in an eternal bad weather vortex) I have never wasted the chance to suggest to my fellow sufferers that now would be a good time to call their members of Congress and ask for new investments in Amtrak. I point out that for shorter trips—less than 500 miles—train service could be a lot more efficient and less time-consuming than air travel with its long security lines, advance check in times, and predictably unpredictable delays.

Amtrak suffers from numerous problems, or course: degraded tracks, aging equipment, and second-class status to freight traffic on east-west routes. The factor of second-class status is a huge one, and one of the greatest detriments to the system. Rarely does any east or west-bound Amtrak train arrive or leave on schedule; and this unreliability factor is like a death sentence in a world where most important activities—business meetings, vacations, family events—abide by firm schedules. In Europe the trains tend to run on exact schedules, and they often ride on state-of-the-art tracks at speeds double or triple what an automobile could achieve. But here in the US, where the mystique of the “rugged individual” (and its partner “personal freedom”) has been used for years to deny public support for things like trains and health care, trains usually run on degraded tracks, at 19th century speeds, and on schedules so undependable that ridership is limited mainly to those who are afraid of flying, or who love trains for their own sake.

Imagine if we had trains running east west at 150 mph. DC to Pittsburgh would take about two hours. Chicago to DC would take about 5 hours. A cross-country trip could be completed in one day with a single overnight. I happen to like Amtrak trains already, even though most of the equipment is aging. I like the freedom to get up and walk around, the convenience (if not the offerings) of the café car, the electric sockets for charging computers and cell phones, and the sense of community that I often feel (people tend to be a lot more relaxed on trains than on airplanes). I also like the absence of heightened security and its associated lines and inconveniences (isn’t it fun to remove one’s shoes at the airport!). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our trains felt as clean and modern as most airplanes? And think how much we could cut CO2 emissions: a passenger on a train requires about 1/10th the greenhouse gas output compared to one traveling by plane.

So, all I can say is it’s about time! And let’s not stop with small investments in Amtrak. Let’s invest enough to fix the big problems and make train travel the mode of choice for all Americans.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Tone of Political Debate in America

I spend probably too much time following a number of issues in the news with which I have been involved as an activist over the years: the fate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, campaign finance reform, health care reform, the war in Iraq, corporate governance, fishing conditions on the Chesapeake Bay (!), and others. Google News Alerts is both a blessing and a curse in this regard, for my inbox is daily deluged with links to news articles that I usually cannot resist reading. As everyone reading this must know, most on-line news organizations now offer opportunities to comment on the story at hand, and lots of people avail themselves of this opportunity. This interactive on-line feature provides the potential for a wonderful public forum, where alternative perspectives and opinions might be aired and explored. But all too often these venues are dominated by polarized spitting matches between people who sound like they have listened to too much Rush Limbaugh or watched too much Keith Olbermann.

I find this trend to be very disturbing: it seems dehumanizing at its core when the rhetoric descends into insults, name-calling, stereotyping, and vitriol. Not that I haven’t laughed from time to time at some of the more outrageous tirades, like Al Franken’s book a few years ago, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.” But what we see in today’s talk radio hosts and TV commentators—mostly on the right—is not an attempt at humor, but hate speech, pure and simple. Embarrassed leaders like Republican Party Chair Michael Steele may try to make light of it by calling such demagogues “entertainers,” but the demagogues themselves take it a great deal more seriously, as demonstrated by Rush Limbaugh last week rejecting that demeaning title (entertainer) and quickly forcing an apology from Steele. Rush, evidently, relishes the de facto role as party leader that Rahm Emanuel has so cynically (or cleverly) thrust upon him.

Political gamesmanship aside, however, what is truly disturbing here is that millions of people are apparently taking license from their political opinion leaders to indulge in the same kind of disrespect and hate-mongering in their own forays into the public square. With Rush Limbaugh and scores of other talk show hosts legitimizing a sub-basement standard of “political dialogue” for more than 20 million listeners, it shouldn’t be too surprising, perhaps, that unreasoned contempt and overt bigotry have become increasingly common in on-line forums. But it is disturbing, nonetheless—especially when people on the other side of the issue at hand fall into the same obnoxious behavior. Is this healthy? Is it, perhaps, a harmless way for people to vent their extreme frustrations in a failing economy and a world where “moral certainty” increasingly leads to devastating outcomes? Actually, I think it is unhealthy, like a cancer in our social fabric. I try to dispassionately call it out when I see it and to set an example of evenhanded calm in debate (though I fail at this from time to time), but I don’t really have a clue how to stop it. Wasn’t this one of those things we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


It is wonderfully encouraging to see that the Obama Administration's new trade representative, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, is drawing a hard line on the enforcement of labor rights and environmental protections by our trading partners. (See: This is how we can "export" our treasured American values of freedom, fairness, and human dignity. The laws we have in this country should apply equally to the countries that we trade with. In the heat of the Iraq war the administration said "We don't torture" but then turned over prisoners to Syria, Egypt, and other countries, knowing full well that they would be tortured. (The administration, in some cases, even relied on "confessions" obtained under torture in other countries.) Obviously, this was a subversion of our values. If we don't torture we can't use other countries to do the torturing for us!

The same principle should apply to the exploitation of labor and environment. If we don't exploit labor ( theory, anyway) we can't allow other countries to do the exploiting for us. But that is exactly what has occurred under globalization and "free trade". We get most of our consumer goods from countries where working conditions, wages, and environmental degradation are so bad they would never be allowed in the US. Yet, our willingness to ignore those conditions as long as we could get cheap consumer goods has enabled and encouraged horrendous abuses. Obama and Ron Kirk are on the right path to restoring the US as global leader of freedom and democracy by insisting that our trading partners rise to acceptable standards in the way workers and the environment are treated.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Opportuntity to Create a Sustainable Economy

With all the rush and anxiety to get our economy (and the world economy) moving again we are at risk of losing an opportunity to redesign from the ground up the way the economy works. After all, what good would it be to recreate the same unsustainable, excessively consumer-driven system that we already know has been destroying the ability of the earth’s ecosystems to sustain life? In response to the crisis, American families seem to be following a logical course: reducing spending and personal debt and increasing personal savings. Banks and businesses are doing the same thing, and with good reason. Because so much of Wall Street value turns out to have been based on fraudulent (or at best, highly leveraged) transactions, it is natural for individuals and institutions alike slow down and look twice before leaping back into a “business as usual” scenario.

Unfortunately, as a result, millions of people have lost their jobs. And as the economy stalls and tries to find a new footing, millions more jobs will be lost. The question is, what kind of new jobs will be created for these legions of unemployed to fill? The opportunity before us is to encourage the development of new businesses based on principles of sustainable development. And it is not a small opportunity! Let’s start with energy efficiency. For decades we have been wasting unconscionable amounts of energy in the way we heat and cool our homes, businesses, schools, and public buildings. The market for retrofitting buildings with energy efficiency improvements—from weatherization and lighting to appliances and insulation—is enormous: hundreds of billions of dollars in the US. Some states are taking the lead on this. Vermont has led the way with an “efficiency utility” that has dramatically cut the cost of energy bills for many homes and businesses, and the Maine legislature is now considering two bills that would boost investments in energy efficiency and help underwrite the advancement of a multi-billion dollar efficiency industry, creating many thousands of jobs just within the state of Maine. (See Other states should follow suit, and the federal government should support and encourage these efforts.

The production of electricity is another area where huge strides could be made. Traditional coal, gas, and nuclear power plants are unbelievably inefficient. Even at peak efficiency, only about one third of the embodied energy from the primary fuel source gets converted into electricity. The rest goes up the smokestack or gets released into the environment as waste heat. Then, because of voltage losses in hundreds of miles of power lines, a tenth or more of the electricity that is generated gets lost in transmission. Even more disturbing is the fact that traditional coal and nuke power plants are designed and run at full power, and they burn up fuel day and night at the same rate whether the electricity is being used or not! Needless to say, a revolution in the way we produce and use electricity is urgently needed; and it offers the promise of a new multi-trillion dollar, high-tech industry. There has never been a better time for Washington to reset its priorities and policies on energy.

Other areas with enormous potential are ecosystem restoration and adaptation to the impacts of global warming. Sometimes these are one and the same. For example, the increasingly extreme storms attributed to climate change are overwhelming municipal waste-water and storm-water systems, causing degradation of our lakes, rivers, and coastal areas on a massive scale. The EPA estimates that nearly $400 billion is currently needed to upgrade these systems throughout the US. Other job-creating ecosystem restoration projects include cleaning up toxic sediments in rivers, harbors, and industrial sites, restoring and preserving wildlife habitat, and finding and retrieving abandoned fishing gear in coastal waters and estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Maine. Taken together, these kinds of projects can create many hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide and provide enormous societal benefits such as clean drinking water, swimmable beaches, and revitalized fisheries.

There are many other industries where reforms and re-invention could boost efficiencies and create jobs, including transportation, health care, education, and agriculture. But at the bottom line, we come back to consumer behavior. Under our current system, over-consumption is not only encouraged, it is subsidized by political policies that enable the exploitation of labor and resources by many of our ‘trading partners”--countries whose governments do not care about human rights, justice, fairness, or human dignity. This laissez-faire policy approach, which is so undermining to American values, has also undermined our nation’s ability to provide the basic goods and services upon which we all depend. We have largely exported to other countries the means of production for everything from clothing to electronics, and now we are even at risk of losing our ability to manufacture automobiles and many of our basic foods. Public policy and consumer behavior need to evolve hand in hand. Consumers are already focusing more on necessities, which is natural in a recession. But public policy should quickly adapt to encourage this more conservative form of consumer behavior while raising the bar with market signals to our trading partners to clean up their act. For example, we should stop importing goods and services from third world countries where laborers work in virtual slavery.

Finally, as this enormous restructuring of our economic system takes place, the government must ensure that individual families are not cast into poverty and homelessness, and that the out-of-work workforce is quickly trained to fill the jobs that a new, sustainable economy will create. The challenge is great, but the opportunity is greater. No one likes change: as long as the status quo was reasonably comfortable nothing was going to change. But now that things are in turmoil, now that people are already very uncomfortable—this is the time to seize the moment, making the kind of dramatic changes that were politically impossible before. Now is the time to re-engineer our economy—not by micromanagement and central control, but by using the economic power of our government to absorb much of the shock that threatens the well being of American families, and by crafting policies that encourage industries and consumer behaviors that are sustainable in the long run.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Pro-Business Pathway to a Better World

“Competitive advantage” is a key concept for the success of any business in a free market economy. There are many factors that can give a business a competitive advantage, ranging from honest strategies to illegal ones. Honest ones include having a better product or service, having better marketing and advertising, or making efficient use of resources to keep costs down. Less honest factors include using political influence to get company or industry-specific tax breaks and subsidies, or waivers from compliance with environmental standards. And, too often, companies go over the edge into unethical and illegal activities like union busting, illegal dumping of toxic waste, bribing public officials, conspiring to fix retail prices, or—in the case of the Mafia—simply bumping off one’s competitors.

It is natural for any company to use all the advantages available to it by law, and most companies push the envelope a little about the exact letter of the law. In fact, company officials have a fiduciary obligation to their stockholders to maximize profit, so they are always looking for new ways to do that. But when federal law creates a certain standard to which all companies in a particular sector are held, then that factor gets taken off the table and none can use it as a way of gaining competitive advantage. For example, no automobile manufacturer is allowed to gain a competitive advantage by eliminating seatbelts or reducing air pollution controls. So society is better off and no individual company is harmed. This is an appropriate role for government.

But the government has fallen short in two areas where it could be a great deal more proactive in protecting society from corporate practices that are damaging. The first of these is the cost of labor. Corporations have argued since time immemorial that the cost of labor should not be dictated by government. But if all corporations were held to the same minimum standard, none would be able to use the cost of labor as a way of gaining competitive advantage. The same concept applies to environmental regulations. Forward looking businessmen could take the lead on this and engage with government to create uniform labor and environmental standards that would better serve society, pressing for a ‘living wage” (sufficient to lift all full time workers out of poverty) without giving a competitive advantage to any one company.

Uniform standards, however, are much more difficult to develop and enforce in a global economy, thanks in large part to President Clinton’s rush to pass global free trade treaties in which labor and environmental protections were almost completely ignored. Nonetheless, if we can ban the import of illegal ivory, we should be able to ban the import of goods manufactured by companies that exploit their labor force or trash the environment. The regulatory and enforcement infrastructure needed to implement such a program would be expensive, and the price of consumer goods would certainly rise, but the benefits to society everywhere would be well worth the cost.

Further, by having product prices reflect their true cost (rather than keeping prices artificially low by “externalizing” the costs of human suffering and environmental degradation), consumers would be encouraged to focus more on necessities and less on the trivialities that have so cluttered up our world. As a result, our collective quality of life would rise, even though our “standard of living”, as narrowly defined by how much stuff we can buy, would likely take a dip. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine a world where everyone could have a good paying job, where no one has to starve, and where society works collectively to protect the precious ecosystems upon which all life depends. But if labor and environment were taken off the table as factors by which companies gain a competitive advantage, we would make great strides in that direction. Will the new Obama administration have the vision and courage to do this?


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Locks Are For Honest People

In high school I had an English teacher who was fond of saying “Locks are for honest people.” This odd phrase always raised questions among my fellow students, and the old man delighted in explaining that criminals simply use bolt cutters! Obviously, a lock provides little protection from a criminal armed with bolt cutters. On the other hand, “honest” people—people who might otherwise be tempted into mischief—are easily deterred by a lock. Later in life I figured out that this same principle applies to laws. There are some incredibly honest and sensible people who don’t need the constraint of laws to ensure good behavior, but most of us need things like speed limits and the threat of punishment to keep us at reasonable speeds on the highway and to encourage us to file our taxes.

Recently, it has become clear that this principle should also apply to corporate and financial regulations. Former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Allan Greenspan famously admitted in the midst of the financial crash that he had been wrong in his assumption that bankers would self-regulate for their own good. Bankers, stockbrokers, mortgage lenders, insurance salesmen, and corporate executives of all stripes, just like other “honest” people need some form of constraint to keep them from slipping into unethical or criminal behavior. And herein lies the great failing of the Republican approach to business and finance.

Republicans tend to view regulations as burdensome constraints that hinder business and stifle economic growth. This view might be substantiated in extreme cases where there is an excess of regulation. (For example, I remember trying to cash a check in India a number of years ago and watching in dismay as nearly a dozen clerks spent a half hour scurrying around making entries by hand in as many different journals before I could receive my money). Unfortunately, politicians are adept at using extreme examples to discredit policies that they don’t like. Reagan very effectively picked on a couple of notable welfare cheats to characterize the entire welfare system as corrupt. But using an exception to promote the opposite is both disingenuous and foolish. Would anyone—even a Republican—use excesses of police violence to suggest that we should have no police at all, or the disgrace of Abu Ghraib as reason to disband the US Army?

But that is exactly the kind of thinking Republicans have applied to all functions of government related to taxes, business, and finance. Their creed is “hands off!” But the result has been catastrophic. Without the constraints of regulation and enforcement, many business executives have slipped over the ethical line to become con men, liars, and cheats. Credit card companies routinely use small print and bait and switch tactics to charge outrageous interest rates and impose unjustifiable fees and penalties. Mortgage brokers lie with impunity, making millions by talking unsophisticated homeowners into ruinous mortgages. CEOs bend accounting principles to create a false appearance of company value. Corporate board members rubber stamp policies and unbelievably excessive executive salaries and bonuses while being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for their “wisdom and oversight.” Corporations, originally licensed strictly to serve the public good, act without conscience and without ramifications as they exploit workers and dump poisons into our rapidly deteriorating environment. Not every businessman is dishonest, of course, but the trend has been depressingly consistent.

Anyone who has watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” remembers how the charming town of Bedford Falls transforms into Pottersville, a horrid, squalid and depressed rural dump, when Mr. Potter, the conniving and miserly businessman, wrests control of the local bank from Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey. It is a shocking scene that brings Bailey to his senses. His former friends, in the desperation of poverty, have become mean spirited drunks, gamblers and prostitutes; it’s only one step away from the wretched slums of Mumbai in "Slumdog Millionaire."

But Pottersville is the extreme Republican vision for America—the logical outcome for a nation where the rich are super rich, and everyone else is destitute and miserable. Is this a vision that any true American can embrace? I don’t think that even most Republicans could stomach such a perversion of the American Dream. Now that the Republican vision has had its day, and has been shown a dismal failure, it is time to redesign the way business and finance operate in America. We must provide sufficient regulations and enforcement to keep the world of business honest. Otherwise, even some “honest” men and women will stretch the rules, lose their moral compass, and eventually take themselves, our country, and the entire planet down the road to ruin.


Hooray for Barack Obama's Plan

Hooray for Barack Obama’s new direction, and his bold initiative to make the super rich pay their fair share. Predictably, Republicans are calling it class warfare, forgetting that it was Reagan and Bush who declared war on the poor and middle classes by slashing taxes on the wealthy and declaring that greed was good. It is no secret that the richest Americans have grown considerably richer under Reaganomics, while the poor got poorer and the middle class lost ground. Not only did the Republicans shift the tax burden away from those who could afford it and onto the backs of those who could not, they also gave license to criminals and con artists on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms by cutting regulations and enforcement. With greed given virtue status and a no-holds barred approach to business and finance, the Republicans turned the US economy into a high-stakes casino where ethics and common sense were both thrown out the window.

The spectacle of Enron energy traders gleefully cheating California electricity markets was emblematic of the Republican-inspired business culture, while the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, and perhaps hundreds more like them are the logical outcome of a deregulated environment. Once respected financial firms jumped into the game by throwing caution to the wind and leveraging their clients' investments at ratios of 30 or 40 to one. The appearance of wealth that these radically irresponsible practices created was nothing more than an illusion—a house of cards that could only be sustained by the impossibility of continuous growth and unlimited profitability. They turned the economy into a giant Ponzi scheme, doomed to fail as soon as credit and trust in the markets took even the smallest downturn. Yet, incredibly, most of those who were responsible—the CEOs, the Wall Street traders, and the politicians who gave them license to steal—will keep their ill-gained wealth while millions of workers suffer the loss not only of their dreams, but of their jobs, retirements, health insurance, and homes.

The Republican ideology and worn out slogans of “tax cuts and small government” are now thoroughly discredited, and Obama is right to claim a bold mandate for change. Huge investments are needed to pay for the debts created by the gambling losses of the super rich. And those who have benefited, and continue to benefit by the protections of free markets and a law-abiding society, would do well to appreciate the special privileges afforded them, and see as their patriotic duty the repayment of the nation’s debts.


Friday, February 27, 2009

The Gulf of Maine Restoration Initiative

News from DC drives home the point that the Gulf of Maine needs the same kind of organizing and advocacy that has resulted in a $475,000,000 line item in the President’s budget for restoration of the Great Lakes. Although this is only a fraction of the $26 Billion called for in an interagency restoration plan for the Lakes, it is the largest appropriation for Great Lakes restoration ever requested by a President. With $ billions more coming to the Great Lakes through the economic stimulus package and from a portion of the $3.9 Billion in the President’s budget for waste water infrastructure, the past two weeks have resulted in over $3 Billion in planned or approved funding for Great Lakes restoration!

This is an extraordinary success story for Great Lakes advocates, especially the Healing Our Waters®--Great Lakes Coalition, representing over 100 zoos, aquariums, businesses, and conservation organizations. The coalition has been pressing Congress for four years to finance the implementation of the Great Lakes Regional Collaborative Strategy—a blue print for restoration of the Great Lakes. Coalition activities have centered on a very well organized and sustained communications, education, and outreach effort that has included Great Lakes lobby days, in which hundreds of citizens descend on Washington each year to visit key members of Congress.

Meanwhile, in DC this week, there was increasing talk by the new directors of agencies like the EPA and Council on Environmental Quality about national ecosystem restoration work. And, finally, the Gulf of Maine—which was virtually off the map a few months ago—is starting to get mentioned. But we are a long way from getting the kind of funding for restoration that is being directed to the Great Lakes. Fortunately, a Gulf of Maine Restoration and Protection Initiative ( is gaining momentum in the region, with state and federal agencies, businesses and non-profit groups coming together to create a comprehensive restoration plan. Just having a comprehensive plan and price tag will put the Gulf of Maine on a similar footing with other aquatic ecosystems like the Everglades and Great Lakes that have long been on the Congressional agenda.

With earmarks falling into bad favor these days, it’s gong to be increasingly difficult to get Congress to direct significant funding to local or even regional projects. But with so many major aquatic ecosystems around the country suffering from identical or similar problems (loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat, toxic sediments, storm water and waste water contamination, and invasive species), a more comprehensive, “America’s Great Waters” approach will be needed to in order to gain enough political support to appropriate the massive amounts of money required. (Nearly $400 Billion is needed just to upgrade the nation’s storm water and waste water systems.) Fortunately, the Gulf of Maine is home to two of the most important people in the United States Senate: Senator Susan Collins and Senator Olympia Snowe.

The stars are aligned now, and many agencies and non-profits in the Gulf of Maine are finally coming together to create the comprehensive restoration plan that will be the ticket of admission to a national Great Waters program. The philanthropic and business communities now need to join in the process and provide some of the underwriting support upon which the process will depend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bridging the Racial Divide

The disgusting, racist cartoon in the New York Post (2/18/09) depicting two officers having just shot a chimpanzee and a caption clearly linking the chimp to Obama, really jolted me and made me reflect deeply about our culture and my own feelings about race. Not that I haven’t thought about this a lot already—but seeing such blatant racism in the mainstream media rekindled the inner debate.

Having grown up in DC I had plenty of mixed-race interactions—socially, academically, and professionally. I didn’t experience much of a racial divide among my peers (fellow students and musicians) whether or not they were African American, Indian, Chinese, or any other race. But I did experience a significant class divide, and this, too, was true regardless of race. When I was young, kids who grew up with violence, who lived in tough neighborhoods, who were poorly educated and aggressive, scared me, no matter what color they were. The fact that many more black kids grew up that way than whites (certainly in DC) might have made race a stand-in for what was in reality a cultural or class divide. In my own experience the divide was much less about race than it was about socialization—differences in education, values, language, and style.

Yet, I was quite aware that there were huge polarities around me: truly racist whites, and lots of blacks with chips on their shoulders, some of whom betrayed a kind of reverse racism through their resentment and justifiable but counter-productive anger. These two polarities were—and are—mutually reinforcing. I really liked the way Obama addressed this during the campaign. He got at both sides of the problem, and laid responsibility fairly where it belonged: on all of us. Ultimately, I think the solution to racial tensions in America lies in the celebration of our differences within the context of shared human values. But it takes making an effort.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a service at a Unitarian Church in Portland, and I had to laugh as the nearly all-white congregation tried to sing an old Negro Spiritual. At one point the organ accompaniment stopped and the choir tried to clap along in an embarrassingly weak attempt to capture the rollicking energy of a black gospel choir. These people need some tutoring by a real black choir, I thought! And that led to another idea: that the racial divide in America won’t go away by itself. We have to work at it. We have to reach out, get outside our own comfort zones from time to time, and make an effort. Churches and other civic institutions can invite musical and cultural exchange. And as individuals we can make uncomfortable choices, like which table to sit at, and with whom to strike up a conversation.

As blacks and whites discover and acknowledge commonly shared values—most importantly our ability to smile and laugh together—we can let go of the fear, resentment, anger, discomfort, and other emotions that have perpetuated the racial divide in America.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who Shold Pay for the Deficit?

Throughout the debates on the economic stimulus bill we heard the bill’s naysayers echo the mantra about our grandchildren having to bear the burden of the nation’s deficit. That sounds like a good populist complaint, but I have a better idea: the people who have profited by cheating, lying, deceiving the public, avoiding taxes, and extracting disgustingly huge salaries and bonuses as heads of finance, commerce, and industry should pay.

It’s fine to say that in America no one should be restricted from making lots of money. But issues of honesty and fair dealing should not be left off the table. Is it OK for conmen to earn and keep great wealth? How about those credit card companies whose deceptive practices and small print lead to interest rates of 29% and more? How about all the Bernie Madoffs who have not yet been caught, or the highly compensated corporate board members who authorize their CEOs to walk away with tens or hundreds of $ millions in salaries and bonuses while their companies fall into bankruptcy? These are the people who should pay for the deficit! Their ill-gotten rewards should be stripped from them to cover the nation’s debts.

Not all corporate CEO’s are dishonest, of course, but we should not forget those unpatriotic thieves—both corporations and individuals—who hide their profits in offshore banks to avoid paying taxes. Joe Biden was right when he said that paying taxes is a patriotic duty. (The fact that people mocked him for saying it says a lot about their own patriotism—or lack of it.) Paying taxes is not only a patriotic duty, it’s the law of the land. And here’s where things get dicey: there’s the “intent of the law,” and there’s the “letter of the law.” Super wealthy individuals and corporations avoid the intent of the law by finding loopholes in the letter of the law. Leona Helmsley once famously said that rich people don’t pay taxes. She was right. And in my book that makes them criminals, because they use their resources and connections to avoid the intent of the law, while (not always) abiding by the letter of the law.

So how can we address the nation’s growing deficit? First we should reinstate a truly progressive tax code. When the income tax was first introduced in 1913 the minimum taxable income was $3,000. In today’s dollars that would be about $65,000. So let’s exempt any income less than $65,000. Next we should simplify the tax code and eliminate the zillions of loopholes used so effectively by the super rich. Then we should raise tax rates on the highest incomes. Between 1951 and 1963 incomes over $400,000 ($3.3 million in today’s dollars) were taxed at 91% and we had unprecedented economic growth. Now the highest tax bracket has dropped to 35% and look what’s happened to our economy. So let’s temporarily raise that back up to 80%. Admittedly, this would be a hard pill for the super rich to swallow after the tax vacation years started by Reagan in the mid 1980’s and made extreme by George W. Bush.

But let’s be reasonable about this. As Benjamin Franklin noted, the wealthy of our nation owe their ability to make and retain wealth to our economic and political stability—all made possible by a society that values and obeys the rule of law. (The super wealthy of 18th century France, or 20th Century Russia didn’t do so well when revolution broke out). As we face the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it’s time for those who have done well in our free society to step up to the plate. Making our grandchildren pay the burden of our national debt while the super wealthy continue to enjoy virtual immunity from taxation goes against the most basic values of fairness and justice upon which our free and egalitarian society is based.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Collapse or Reinvention?

Maybe it's because I'm trying to organize my 2008 taxes, or maybe it's the thought of having too many projects on my plate, or perhaps it's the uncertainty of the shakeout from the current collapse of capitalism as we have known it—whatever the cause, or causes, I woke up this morning, February 1, 2009, full of anxiety for myself and the world around me.  To make matters worse, I sat up in bed and read Ben McGrath's article "The Dystopians" in the January 26 New Yorker in which he mockingly writes about James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Chellis Glendinning, and other prophets of doom, as he calls them.  Their collective worldview is not a happy one, to be sure: cannibalism being about the only ill not forecast for American society as people struggle to survive in the wake of civilization's predicted crash. 
Although I don't share these authors' pessimism (or contempt) about the American economy, I was a big fan of both Kunstler and Glendinning in the mid 1990's, for they expressed many criticisms of our culture with which I agreed—mainly that it was (and is) unsustainable, but also ugly (for the most part), and largely devoid of soul.   My own answer has been to live in aesthetically pleasing (also known as "authentic", or "older") homes and neighborhoods, to rely (as I always have) on my entrepreneurial adaptability, and to try to hone my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual honesty to a soulful edge.  I, too, have predicted an unraveling of the economic order—anyone who was paying attention knew that the stock market, like the housing market, was hugely overvalued and that gamblers and criminals in government and in corporate boardrooms were playing fast and loose with the economy. 
But, in spite of the current crisis—and in spite of Reaganomics and 8 years of Bush/Cheney—I have maintained a slightly more optimistic view of the future than McGrath's "Dystopians."  I agree with them that the consumer-driven economy of the past 50 years needs to radically change course; I agree with them that the entire infrastructure of western civilization is far too interdependent and fragile (just imagine the possibility of a week-long power outage in New York City). However, I don't predict that we'll be reduced to a 19th century world, where horses provide the main means of work and transportation; and I don't expect that we'll all have to stock up on a year's supply of rice and beans and take up guns to defend our homes against marauding hordes of starving men.  (Back in the late seventies and early eighties I used to believe these things, and stocked up accordingly. But I got over it.)
Like George Bush (did I actually SAY that!!) I have an enormous faith in the ingenuity of the American people.  I think we CAN transform our economy, that we can adapt, that we can develop and adopt new, efficient technologies, and that we can live sustainably.  For some people these changes will be voluntary, but the likelihood is that many adaptations will be forced on us, either by market forces or by a proactive government.  (There used to be a day, before the domination of American politics by right wing ideologues, when the government actually regulated things—like requiring seatbelts and CAFÉ standards—and acted in ways generally beneficial to the American people).  As a culture, we are already changing from the inside, and our collective values are getting better all the time.  Just look at whom we, the American people, just elected to the White House!
Change is always uncomfortable, and for many people the radical changes needed to avoid the kind of collapse predicted by the gloom and doomers is going to be painful.  But solutions are out there.  We can bring back to America many of the jobs and means of production we have exported to the 3rd world.  In fact, we'll have to if the peak oilers are right and the rising costs of intercontinental transportation erase the "competitive advantage" of cheap labor in Asia—or if progressive policies ensure that 3rd world laborers are given a "living wage."  We can transform our own markets, increasing demand for super high efficiency products like compact fluorescent light bulbs while eliminating waste.  We can transform our behavior, too.  We probably don't need 5,000 square feet of living space per nuclear family, and we don't need to fill up all that space with cheap junk. (I actually don't know many people who live like that, but that's probably because most of my family and friends came out of the counter culture of the '60's and are "early adaptors").
In any event, it seems obvious that we can't spend our way out of the current crisis without digging ourselves into a deeper crisis, as predicted by the Dystopians.  With intelligent and courageous political leadership we can seize the moment and turn ourselves around.  It will take many extraordinary measures, and a lot of people are going to need government help to ensure that they don't go homeless and hungry in the short term, but we can do this. 
There, now I feel better.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Can Humans Choose the Common Good?

When will human killing cease—
That primal mode of self defense,
That urge to challenge and prevail,
To crush the stranger, guard the home,
So one’s own gene pool may go on
To populate the earth?

From Cain’s first rock, and then the sword,
Then arrows piercing from afar,
Then guns and planes and bombs, and then
To missiles armed by atom’s might…
When will this ever end?

Mankind’s survival now depends on something new:
Not killing for defense, nor exacting pure revenge,
Nor fearful first preemptive strike;
Not competition, where winner takes all
And vanquished peoples are left to fall
Upon scarce resources, with no other choice
But to perish or to fight.

Or even worse, rogue nations armed with angry ideology
And tools of mass destruction,
Willing to destroy the world in suicidal sacrifice,
Not caring for their children or other living things,
Not seeing all creation as a sacred gift of life,
But blinded by ambition to inflict the greatest harm,
Cutting off nose to spite the face,
To risk the end of human race.
These sentiments cannot prevail!

Surely, collaboration and cooperation,
Governed by the rule of law
Provide an answer and a path
That yet may save us all.
For if we value freedom and if we value life,
We must soon find a way of ending human strife.
So women are respected and human rights protected,
And mercy tempers justice, which in turn is not neglected
And reasonable outcomes mark the path that is selected
And humans choose the common good,
The middle way,
In spirit of generous compromise
That all may live,
And let live,
And rejoice.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Economic Realities in a Just World

The crash of the US and global economies offers a chance for the developed world to readjust not only their regulatory systems, but also their patterns of spending and consumption. For too long we have seen two very destructive forces at work in our economy: the "externalizing" of hidden costs, and the false valuation of companies fueled by speculative and unregulated lending and investing.

"Externalized costs" are the damaging consequences of a product's life-cycle that are not accounted for in the product's price. For example, one of the externalized costs of electricity generated by coal-burning power plants is the death toll due to particulate emissions—estimated recently by the EPA to exceed 30,000 US citizens per year. Other common externalized costs are the suffering and privation of exploited workers and the heavy environmental toll in the countries that now supply us with nearly all our consumer goods. These hidden costs make every consumer indirectly complicit in the infliction of human misery, the denial of basic human rights, and the wanton destruction of the earth's precious resources and living ecosystems all around the world.

Underlying the crash of our financial system and the subsequent crash of our manufacturing and commercial sectors is the fact that investments of all kinds have been improperly valued. The value of publicly-traded companies, for example, has been based on speculation rather than real assets and earnings. Publicly held companies—those that are owned by their stockholders—are rarely worth the actual collective value of their stock because stock prices are determined by the law of supply and demand, not by actual company value. The dotcom "bubble" was the result of a huge demand for internet technology stocks based on the widely held belief that the IT companies would do well; so the price of technology stocks shot through the ceiling, far exceeding any real valuation of the companies they represented. Then, when reality set in and people started selling, supply far exceeded demand and prices crashed far below what many of the companies were actually worth.

The same kind of supply and demand dynamic is at play in the financial markets, especially in the unregulated world initiated by the Reagan administration and promoted by every administration since then. Instead of real value, the "perception" of value was used to establish prices of financial instruments. Some of the biggest investment firms were buying investments using lines of credit secured by only 3¢ on the dollar. In other words, a company might secure an investment of $1,000,000 with a deposit of only $30,000. As long as speculation drove prices up and the economy was growing, everything was fine. But if the price (perceived value) of the $1,000,000 investment fell below $970,000 the company would have lost not only its $30,000 but would also be liable for the difference. Is it any wonder that so many banks and brokerage houses have gone belly up recently? The entire system was a house of cards.

The Obama administration is now taking on the awesome task of fixing the financial system, but the real hard problems are going to be faced by the American public. The fact is, the rate at which Americans are consuming and laying waste to the planet's resources simply is not sustainable. With 5% of the world's population, we are using 25% of its energy and other resources—leading to the hard conclusion that we must somehow readjust the way we manufacture, market, purchase, utilize, and dispose of products and services. Some of the solutions are relatively easy. For example, instead of building more electricity generating plants we can dramatically reduce the amount of electricity we use without any loss in our "standard of living" by implementing energy efficiency measures.

Energy issues are easy, however, compared to other adjustments consumers will need (or be forced) to make. Without the "subsidies" of exploited 3rd world labor and environmentally destructive manufacturing practices, the price of most consumer goods in the US would skyrocket. Imagine how much a shirt at WalMart would cost if the person who made it in some 3rd world sweat shop was paid $20.00 per hour instead of 23¢--or how much household electricity would cost if all the hidden health and environmental costs of burning coal were factored into the price.

There are many "efficiencies" whose implementation could mitigate some of these hidden costs without putting much upward pressure on consumer prices. "Fair Trade" coffee, which is commonly available in grocery stores, is a good example. By eliminating corporate "middlemen" (with their associated costs of administration, marketing, and stockholder profit) and buying directly from coffee growers in 3rd world countries, the distributors of Fair Trade coffee are able to keep the retail price relatively low while dramatically increasing the earnings of the growers. However, even with the efficiencies gained by eliminating middlemen and their often excessive profits in all manufacturing, service, and financial sectors, the buying power of the US dollar would still be heavily impacted if workers were paid reasonable wages and companies were held responsible for the costs of their environmental impacts.

At some point our core American values of "fairness and freedom for all people" will have to be reconciled with the way we live and the way we shop—and by extension, the way the companies that supply our goods and services treat their employees and manage their environmental footprints. The current economic crisis demonstrates that unregulated free markets are dangerously unstable. All along we should have demanded that the regulatory arm of government ensure honesty, transparency, and stability in the financial, manufacturing, and commercial sectors. We should also demand that government take a role in ensuring fair treatment of the employees who are making our consumer goods—from workers in Nigerian oil fields to children making soccer balls in Pakistan. It may seem counterintuitive for government to use our tax dollars to enforce standards that will reduce our dollar's buying power. But is it not an appropriate role for government to ensure that our core values are upheld and infused into all aspects of American life?

This is the sacrifice we should all be called to make: if we are to live in a world of peace, where all peoples' basic human rights are respected and protected, we need to be prepared to pay the price. Our standard of living as measured by the dollar's buying power may go down a bit, but the quality of our lives will be immeasurably improved by ensuring that people everywhere have a decent quality of life.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I Cried

Several times while listening to President Barack Hussein Obama's inaugural speech yesterday I found myself tearing up—at times the tears rolling copiously down my cheeks. These were tears of joy and relief, and of catharsis—the polar opposite of what I felt that wretched day in 2003 when George Bush announced the imminent invasion of Iraq. My tears had very little to do with the much ballyhooed succession of an African American to the Presidency, though the profundity of that achievement and it's meaning for race relations in America cannot be underestimated. My tears, like my reason for supporting and voting for Obama in the first place, had nothing to do with race. They had everything to do with the fact that a truly good, principled, and extremely capable human being was taking the reins of power as the leader of the free world, and--in the course of his speech--he was laying out a vision and a set of values that resonated so powerfully with my own deeply held values and ideals.

During Obama's short talk my feelings about the United States of America went through a radical transformation—a transformation that had begun with his capturing the nomination of the Democratic Party last summer. Although I had never joined the ranks of flag burners in the 1960's, I shared much of their sense of shame about my country and it's activities around the world. Sadly, the war in Viet Nam was only the beginning of my disillusionment with the US and the enormously powerful corporations whose agendas our government supported or allowed. How, I wondered, could a force for such good in the world have been turned into the vehicle for such selfish and narrow-minded ends? How could a country based on such noble ideals resort to such ignoble actions: supporting rightwing terrorists, assassinating foreign leaders, undermining freedom and justice around the world wherever it stood in the way of our corporate ("national") interests?

My disillusionment devolved to cynicism with the election and subsequent illegal and unethical behavior of Richard Nixon, then to disappointment in the Carter administration (though my hopes and my admiration for Jimmy Carter remained high), and to horror at the culture of greed and exploitation ushered in by Ronald Reagan and continued by George H.W. Bush.
The Clinton years, too, failed to restore in me any feeling of national pride. His embrace of conservative issues like "welfare reform" and his whole-hearted advocacy for unbridled free trade (with no constraints on labor and environmental abuses) further undermined the values I cherished as "American." The stolen election of 2000 and the Bush/Cheney administration's eight years of blatantly criminal actions—most notably the preemptive invasion of Iraq and the illegal detention and torture of prisoners taken in the course of that idiotic adventure—erased any lingering sense of pride in my country.

But that all changed with President Obama's inaugural address.
Finally, we have a leader in the White House who has a powerful moral and ethical compass, who truly understands the essential values of freedom, respect, dignity, and fairness, and who sees America's security and well-being as dependent on the security and well-being of people and nations everywhere. Obama's speech gave me hope that my country will no longer manipulate and exploit other nations with a fist of oppression. Rather, with generosity, dialogue, and respect for other cultures and the international rule of law we will set an example and nurture the ascendancy of the very values upon which our constitution and our way of life is founded.

I know that I am not alone in these sentiments.
Like Michelle Obama, I feel pride in my country for the first time since my childhood. It is not the pride of arrogance. It is the pride of humility. And yesterday, for the first time in my adult life, I found myself wearing an American flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner with heart-felt enthusiasm. Is it any wonder that I cried?


Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration of Hope

Johannah and I are in DC for the inaugural celebrations, and what a celebration it is. I am usually averse to crowds, but had a really wonderful time at the concert at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. The spirit of the crowd was so infectious, the performances heart-felt and superb. Every time the camera panned to Obama (visible on huge video screens placed strategically around the reflecting pool) the crowd went nuts. Despite the cold it was heart-warming and uplifting. This morning we picked up a copy of the Washington Post with it's full color front page photo of the crowd along the reflecting pool back towards the Washington Monument. We drew an arrow to a spot somewhere on the far side and near the back end of the reflecting pool and wrote in our names. At lunch today with my 91-year old father, we presented him with the paper telling him we had made it onto the front page of the Post (along with 400,000+ other people.) Everywhere around this city people are smiling and greeting each other as friends. Obama paraphernalia is omnipresent, from hats and t-shirts to lapel buttons. Issues of race seem to have evaporated, not only on the street where a spirit of brotherly love seems to have taken firm hold, but--as the paper reports--even in the high end social circles which were once the bastion of wealthy whites.

We all are holding such high hopes and expectations for Obama: to fix our economy, get us out of Iraq, reenergize a spirit of service, and rebuild our reputation in the eyes of the world. I expect that he will play a huge role on the world stage, bringing leaders of nations together to seek solutions that are equitable, generous, and long-lasting. It is my personal hope that he will convene some sort of global summit to examine shared human values. For by focusing on values as the touch stone for policies and relationships he might be able to move people with otherwise immutable and opposing positions and help them find common ground for the common good. I really liked the comments of Bishop Gene Robinson (the openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire) who gave the opening invocation at the concert yesterday. I cannot remember the exact words, but he spoke about the need to think not only about what was best for America, but what was best for all people and all nations. This is the kind of expansive vision we need to lead the new global society, for the impacts of our activities must be regarded through the lens of survival--not just the survival of nations and institutions, but of the human race. I have hope for this kind of leadership from our new President, and I am ecstatically happy to be here in DC to be a part of our new, historic journey.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Balancing Act

I may have upset some of my Jewish friends with my criticism of the Israeli government's extreme aggression in Gaza. If so, I should clarify. I am not "pro-Palestinian" in any sense of the word, just as I am not anti-Semitic. In fact, I prefer to erase labels of race and culture, and treat all people simply as human beings. Public opinion research the world over has shown that there are certain basic human values common to nearly all people: fairness, justice, respect, freedom... Unfortunately, these values often take a back seat when people self-identify culturally or nationally, or when their religious ideology is at odds with their values. Peace can only be attained when human values are the basis of relationships.

Underlying my observations about the Israeli government's actions in Gaza are the questions: Is this fair? Is this just? Is this respectful of the Palestinian people? Does this advance the cause of freedom and peace? In every case the answer is no. In fact, the entire history of the relationship between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people is marked by disregard for these basis human values. Land grabs, illegal settlements, restrictions on travel, harassment, arrogance, a sense of religious entitlement, and an underlying attitude that Palestinians are sub-human are defining features of Israeli government policy.

I make no excuses for Hamas' militancy. In fact, I appeal to the Palestinian people to follow the Ghandian path to freedom and justice. By utilizing non-violent means the Palestinians can deny the Israeli government the most powerful tool that Israel has used to justify the oppression of Palestine: the claim that they are fighting "terrorists." If Hamas would fundamentally change course and resort to massive PEACEFUL protests instead of acts of violence and provocation, they could swing world opinion so completely on the side of the Palestinian people that a just solution would have to arise. The powerful examples of colonial India and the US civil rights movement are textbook cases of the effectiveness of non-violence as the path to justice, freedom, peace, and respect. It is not only a morally unassailable tactic, it is wonderfully strategic and effective, for it will show the people of the world Israeli government policy for what it really is.

The reason my criticism has been aimed at the Israeli government is that their actions have been and continue to be so extreme--and the casualties of war so disproportionately on the side of Palestinian civilians--as to make Hamas look almost like a pacifist movement by comparison. Public opinion is a powerful tool for change. Unfortunately, Israel has lost--and continues to lose--credibility and sympathy in the eyes of the world. "Going wild" (the term used by one senior Israeli official to describe their aggression in Gaza) may be gratifying to an angry mob, but it is counterproductive and has done the state of Israel enormous harm.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Eye for an Eye?

The ancient Jewish tribal custom of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" was long ago discredited.  Although Jesus' suggestion of turning the other cheek has not yet found wide acceptance among nations, revenge is certainly looked down upon by most of the civilized world as an ignoble response to an inflicted harm.  The Israeli government's apparent policy of "One Million Palestinian Eyes for Every Israeli Eye" is a huge step backward for humanity.  On moral grounds alone the Israeli government's war in Gaza has no justification.  But the sad reality is that it is also a most non-strategic approach to the long-running conflict with Hamas and the Palestinian people.  Predictably, not only the Arab world, but public opinion in all civilized nations is now turning against Israel.  

Whether or not it is Israel's stated policy, the government's demonstrated attitude about Palestinians is that they are less than human, and thus should be "crushed."  Is this not strangely familiar? The Nazis' justification for eliminating the Jewish race was that Jews were less than human--"an abomination of nature" in Hitler's words.  Of course, the Israeli government is not alone in bringing shame on its people by such behavior.  The tragedy at Abu Graib demonstrated what terrible things people are capable of (even normally civilized and law-abiding Americans) when the "enemy" is no longer regarded as human.  It is unfortunate, indeed, that the subtext of the label "terrorist" is that the person is not a human being and is undeserving of any consideration, dignity, or even basic human rights.  This is a huge mistake.  

Israel should remember that terrorists aren't born as terrorists (though some people are born as criminals).  When people perceive that their rights have been abused, when they feel continual oppression and injustice, when they feel backed into a corner and have no other way to be heard or to find freedom--that is when even normal, civilized people are likely to turn to violence.  We should remember that many of the founding fathers of Israel were once "terrorists" by any modern definition, though we may now remember them as freedom fighters and heros.  And the United States of America would still be a British colony (or, at least, a part of the Commonwealth) if the American Revolution had not been fueled by the injustices and abuses that King George heaped upon the colonialists--turning them into "terrorists" in the eyes of the Crown.

Israel refuses to address Hamas with anything other than bombs, bullets, and phosphorous.  If the administration changed that policy and began treating the Palestinian people--including especially the members of Hamas--as human beings, they would not only gain the respect of world opinion, they would gain moral authority and might even achieve the peace that has eluded them for so long.  Unfortunately, the cause of peace has now been set back at least 60 years, and the long road has been made a great deal longer.  Worse, the Israeli government's zealous aggression in Gaza is making Israel LESS secure by stirring up the worst sentiments in the populations of its Arab neighbors.  What folly--and what a tragedy we are witnessing!


Monday, January 12, 2009

Values vs. Beliefs

It's not important what a person believes—it's how he or she behaves that matters.

--King Mongkut, Thailand 1860 (paraphrased)

There is a big difference between idealism and ideology and between values and beliefs. Values are universal concepts like fairness, justice, freedom, equality, respect, compassion, and service—and they are universally "good" and humanizing. Beliefs, on the other hand, tend to be rigid and dehumanizing, and can range from myths such as a literal belief that "God created the earth in seven days", to deadly doctrines and prejudices such as Hitler's decree that "Jews are an abomination of nature".

One of the most unfortunate qualities of beliefs and ideologies is that they do not usually respond to empirical or factual evidence that contradict them. Instead, they tend to shape the interpretation or selection of evidence, as demonstrated in recent years by the Bush Administration's selective use of intelligence to propel us into a supposedly justified pre-emptive war in Iraq. Our core human and American values, on the other hand, provide a touchstone against which society can test, evaluate, and judge the policies and actions of peoples and governments.

Values tend to unite us, while beliefs and ideologies usually divide us. Core human values of fairness, justice, freedom, and equality are found in virtually all cultures and religions around the planet. But these values are often subordinated or ignored entirely when they conflict with beliefs. Some "pro-life' activists, for example, may espouse "Christian" values of love and compassion while justifying violence against abortion clinics and doctors on the basis of the belief that life begins at conception, or that the life of an unborn child is "more valuable in the eyes of God" than that of a living adult.

A fundamental reason the United States has been respected and admired by people of other cultures for over two hundred years is that we have a form of government based on the protection and promotion of core human values. Since the penning of Jefferson's magnificent words "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" America has been seen as a place where people are (or should be) free and equal, and where the rule of law provides justice and fairness for all. The protection of the values commemorated in the Bill of Rights and later amendments to the Constitution has created an environment of opportunity that is the envy of the world.

But there is a dark side to the coin of freedom: rights have been abused, or extended as privileges where they don't belong; and power has been used in ways and to ends contrary to our basic values. How can the words "Proud to be an American" be applied to corruption in the political system, the undue influence of corporate lobbyists, the unfair and sometimes brutal exploitation by US corporations of foreign labor and natural resources, the prosecution of unjust wars, or the use or even tacit sanction of assassination and torture as instruments of our international policy? There is a big difference between loving what America represents and loving how some American administrations, agencies, and corporations have conducted their business at home and abroad.

When Michelle Obama famously said that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, conservatives upbraided her as unpatriotic. But her critics, the same kind of people who espouse the jingoistic "my country, right or wrong", failed to understand—or willfully misunderstood—that being critical of an administration, a president, a policy, or certain actions of the US military, is not the same thing as being unpatriotic. Since the era of the Viet Nam War, large segments of the US population have been critical of—and many have felt a burden of shame about—some of the policies and actions of our government and some of our corporations. This does not make these people unpatriotic; quite the opposite. Those who are cognizant of our shortcomings, who recognize where our core American values are not being upheld, and who speak out and work for a more perfect union, should be celebrated, not condemned. Such people are the conscience of our nation. They are the ones who protect our country from falling victim to the kind of mindless nationalism of a Nazi Germany.

It is also important to look at facts rather than depending on ideology in formulating policy. It was very interesting to hear Cindy McCain speak at the 2008 Republican National Convention as she cited one core American value after another, then, offered tax cuts and "smaller government" as the party's ultimate strategy for upholding those values. Certainly it is possible for taxes to be "too high," and for government to grow "too large," but those terms are relative to the times and conditions, and to whom is being taxed or served by government. During President Eisenhower's administration, tax rates for the super rich were higher than at any time in history, yet our economy grew at unprecedented rates and the middle class prospered, while under the "tax cuts for the rich" pushed through by the Bush administration the middle class has suffered and our economy fallen on hard times. Recognizing, of course, that there are many factors at play in the complex workings of a national economy, it is at least safe to say that the simplistic approach of "lower taxes and smaller government" is not substantiated by history or by factual evidence as a certain path to prosperity. Likewise, the Clinton administration's ideological embrace of free trade, regardless of its obvious potential impacts on labor and the environment (Ross Perot famously saw it coming) should serve as a warning that all people and all political parties are prone to confusing idealism with ideology, and subordinating values to beliefs.

Our challenge now, as human beings and as Americans, is to move forward with strength and conviction in a highly conflicted world while remaining vigilantly self-reflective. We must ensure that in pursuing our life-affirming and freedom-loving ideals we do not fall into the dehumanizing trap of ideology, and that in trying to live by our values we do not fall victim to the dark side of our own beliefs.


Ending War in Gaza

I am increasingly upset at the Israeli military actions in Gaza, and at the overall approach to solving the issues between the Israeli government and their Palestinian neighbors. Notwithstanding the annoyance of Hamas' continuous rain of rockets (most of them harmless), the images of destruction, death, suffering, anguish, despair, starvation, deprivation, and rage of the Palestinian people in Gaza leads me to an uncomfortable conclusion that the Israelis have succumbed to the age-old adage that "the victims become the victimizers." The sheer scale and inhumanity of their actions is horrific, and completely out of proportion to the admittedly provocative aggression of Hamas.

But, without looking at the larger and historical picture, and without seeking to understand how and why members of Hamas would feel justified in sending rockets over the border in the first place, the underlying conflict can never be settled. In fact, the Israeli government's actions are only making matters worse, fanning the flames of Arab and Palestinian resentment into a seething, boiling rage that will certainly find a most destructive outlet.

I suggest that what is needed is a process of acknowledgment, accountability, and reparations--a process in which the best of human nature is given a chance to heal the wounds that have resulted from fear, greed, entitlement, ideology, racism, blame, and revenge.

(I smiled the other day at the thought that since the US has finally elected an African American to the White House, isn't it time for Israel to elect a Palestinian Prime Minister? This may sound ridiculous at first blush, but the parallel is not too far off the mark.)

I encourage you to take action on this. You can write to President-elect Obama via So far, he has been silent--and I only hope that he is holding his tongue for now because his views are radically different from those of the war-mongering Bush administration. Please take a few moments to write to him and offer an alternative approach to the criminal aggression endorsed and underwritten by the current administration.

Certainly, if peace could be attained in northern Ireland, peace can come to the Middle East. But it will take a massive expression of public opinion to change the present course.