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.