Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reflections on Yom Kippur and Mideast Peace

As Jews around the world observed Yom Kippur, at levels of ritual observance ranging from the Haridim at the Wailing Wall to a reform temple in the U.S. Midwest to those who do not go to synagogue but in some way observe the Day of Atonement, it is important for each individual, for Israel, and for the world that the observance go deeper than even the most fervent practice of ritual and belief.  

For Yom Kippur to have its intended impact. each person must understand and experience the spiritual lessons and meaning of Yom Kippur.  What are those lessons?

First it is necessary that we are aware of all the ways in which we have sinned, which is to say the ways in which we have harmed others and ourselves.  On Yom Kippur, we stand and go through a seemingly never-ending list of our sins, of the ways in which we have failed, and we beat our hearts in a mea culpa.

But if this confessional practice is a non-reflective exercise, a recitation by rote, then there is no awareness and Yom Kippur can have no spiritual meaning for the individual.  It is not then a day of Teshuva, of returning to our original self nature which is goodness, a day of transformation through freedom from our ego-controlled actions.

So the first essential for a true observance of Yom Kippur is a reflection on all the ways in which one has, whether as an individual or as part of a larger group, harmed others or harmed oneself; the ways in which one has strayed from essential goodness.  If Israel looked at itself in this way, if West Bank settlers looked at themselves in this way, by going inside oneself deeply, they would discover many ways in which they have harmed Palestinians individually and as a group, as well as harmed the prospects for peace and thus ultimately harmed Israel and themselves.  

It is not a defense in this exercise of awareness and atonement to say, “But my actions were justified.”  In the spiritual world of Yom Kippur, there is no justification for harming another except immediate self-defense … that is to say that right then, at that moment, you or your loved ones were threatened with imminent physical harm.  So with regard to the bulk of actions taken by Israel and settlers against Palestinians there is no spiritual justification.

Second, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.  Atonement means to make reparation for a wrong or injury.  How do we each atone for the wrongs that we have committed against ourselves and others?

The breast-beating, “forgive me for I have sinned,” mea culpa of the Yom Kippur service is a good start, so long as it is truly heart-felt.  But making reparation or amends requires more than asking for forgiveness.  

At a minimum it requires a commitment not to engage in the same type of action in the future.  Teshuva is not like Catholic confession where you ask to be forgiven and are absolved of your sins regardless how often the same scenario is presented.  Teshuva means committing to return to your God-given essence of goodness.

Atonement also requires making an effort to right the wrong that one has committed.  And again, it is not a defense that one was wronged.  This is not a pissing match as to who wronged whom first or more often.  As the saying goes, “Two wrongs do not make a right.”  How does Israel right the wrongs committed against the Palestinians?  That is for them to reflect on.

And I must hasten to note that this spiritual obligation of Jews, as part of the Yom Kippur observance, is not limited to them.  Palestinians, and Arabs in general, have a similar spiritual obligation according to the Koran of repenting  and making amends.  And not committing similar wrongdoings in the future.

Why is it that human beings, regardless of their race or religion or nationality, habitually act in ways that are contrary to the precepts of their religions.  Why is the Golden Rule … do unto others as you would have them do unto you … which is at the core of every major religion so rarely put into practice?  Even those who profess orthodoxy are often more in touch with ritual observance than spiritual.  

The reason is that man’s ego-mind, obsessed with his inner feelings of inferiority and threat, does not accept the spiritual teaching common to most religions that one should become free of the conceit, “I am,” and instead have as his purpose feeling compassion and loving-kindness towards others, returning to his original goodness.  For the ego-mind, the protection of oneself against the harmful actions of others is what’s primal.  It’s all about us v them.  In Hebrew, the ego is called “Yetzer Hara” (destructive force) … how appropriate.

This is why the world  … individuals, families, societies, nations … now, and for most of history, have been in a state of conflict rather than harmony.  This is why understanding and observing the spiritual basis of one’s religion is so important for one’s own peace and for that of the world.  Yom Kippur provides Jews with the opportunity for such transformation. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Liberals - A Crisis of Faith

Have you noticed how Republicans constantly base their positions on the Constitution?   When was the last time you heard a Liberal/Democrat base his positions on the Constitution or other founding document like the Declaration of Independence?  

One major exception was the 2004 Democratic nominating convention when Barack Obama based his entire speech on the Declaration, and most speakers that followed mentioned the Declaration as well.  (Coincidentally, I had sent my then-new book, We Still Hold These Truths, to Terry McAuliffe, the DNC Chair at the time, several weeks before and he had responded with interest and said he would forward the book to his program people.)  But that was a flash in the pan, even for that election season.

Liberals seem to have given up on the Declaration and the Constitution in arguing their case, giving those precious documents up to the Radical Right.  Perhaps it’s because they can’t get around the fact that slavery was embedded in the Constitution and that women didn’t even get the vote till 1919.  (They should read my post, “All Men Are Created Equal?”  September 30, 2014.)  They seem to think they can sway their audience just by talking about what’s right, what’s needed.  But that doesn’t provide them with ammunition against the Constitution-based arguments of the Republicans.

As I argued when I originally wrote the book, Democrats need to inspire and arouse the American people, not just the Democratic faithful, by developing a cohesive vision of what we think a better America would look like and how we propose to get there.  And we must communicate that vision effectively and passionately in a way that the average voter gets. It can’t just be a grab-bag of policies.  

We must create a counter-movement to the Radical Right.  Certainly, given the fear, anger, and distrust that is out there now, plus the fact that the Koch brothers have hijacked the middle class revolt, this is even more critical.

Luckily, there is at hand an overarching perspective at once so familiar yet profound that the American people will immediately get it … the words of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, ...”

These words are the core morality, the heart, the soul of American democracy.   This is America’s common faith.  And an integral part of that faith is government’s responsibility for creating a context in which each American has an equal opportunity to pursue those rights.  

It’s about the people … as Lincoln put it, government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But it’s not just about rights, there’s also an implied shared responsibility, where all citizens have a duty to support the government’s efforts to promote the public good, each according to his ability. 

All the domestic policies of the Party naturally flow from these core American concepts.  And it is those policies that make the Democratic Party “life-affirming” and “pro-family”.  It is those policies, which respect the value of all human life and the environment, that make the Democratic Party a party of faith – not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, not Buddhist … but deep faith.   And while rooted in our past, this perspective compels policies that meet the needs of our economy and society now and in the future, in a world where many of the assumptions of the past are no longer valid.

This is a call to arms for all Liberals.   Return to your roots.  Return to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and reclaim those documents for yourself and for the American people as profoundly liberal documents, not the narrow conservative ones as depicted by the Republicans.  And, they must label the Republicans for what they are … hypocrites masquerading as the party of the people. 

Watch the YouTube video: What Do Democrats Stand For?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Growing a Stronger America - More Self-sufficient, a Stronger Citizenry, a World-Class Infrastructure

America is a great country.  But we are slipping.  If we want to remain great, we need to grow a stronger America.  America must become more self-sufficient.  It must do everything it can to create a better educated, healthier, more engaged citizenry and rebuild a strong middle class.  And it must either replace or repair an aging, often archaic, infrastructure with one that will both meet the needs of the citizenry as well as support our economy’s competitiveness into the next century.

More Self-Sufficient:  The impact of globalizations has been a disaster for America’s well-being.  Instead of the advertised promise of globalization, it has become a curse for all but the multi-national corporations engaged in it.  Yes, most of us do like spending less money for all sorts of merchandise, and it has kept the inflation rate down, but we have paid a heavy price for that benefit.

First there is the well-publicized loss of good-paying, middle class jobs.  This has resulted in millions of previously well-employed men either being unemployed, employed in a new field at a fraction of their previous wage, or at the same job but at a wage that has stagnated for decades.  This has decimated the middle class.

That impact may have gotten the most publicity, but there is much more.  The loss of earning power by a large segment of the population has resulted in a weaker domestic economy.  You can’t buy as much when you’re not earning as much.  It’s as simple as that.  And the influx of less-expensive goods from abroad together with our dependence on imported oil has worsened our balance of trade deficit, thus weakening our economic independence.  Foreign countries own 34% of US debt, and China alone owns over 7% or $1.2 trillion.

Beyond weakening the domestic economy by reducing spending, globalization together with tax policy has increased income inequality.  From 1980 to 2014, the US per capita GDP increased from $28,133 (adjusted for inflation) to $50,211.  That’s an increase of 78%.  (The figures vary considerably, so I used the ones showing the least growth.)  By comparison, the increase in the US median personal income (not the average, but the center point) rose from $20,919 to $28,829, an increase of only 37%.  By contrast, looking at the increase in average personal income, which is skewed by the increase of those in the top income categories, the increase is 104%.  

The economy has grown, multi-national corporations have profited, the rich have gotten richer, but the average worker has not.  Without question, the middle class has been left behind and adversely impacted by these forces.  This is not healthy for our economy or our society.

Further, we have now become more dependent on the health of other, specifically Asian, economies.  The fortunes of our corporations and thus the stock market are subject to the vagaries of these economies, as we’ve often seen.  The stock market has been more volatile since globalization than before.  And surprisingly it doesn’t matter how strong or unconnected with global trade a company is … markets are so interconnected that when there’s a rumble in Asia’s economy, all U.S. stocks go down.

Lastly, but significantly, because what is happening in distant corners of the world has become even more important to American corporations and our economy, it has given more credence to the argument that we need a huge military able to go to any spot in the world to defend our national security.  We are witnessing an increased blurring between what is in our national security interest and what is in the interest of our multi-national corporations.  But they are not the same.  

That’s really what happened in Iraq, as our national security was never at stake, not even had there been WMDs in Iraq. We should never be in a position of going to war to protect corporate supply lines.  We should never expend the lives of our youth and our material wealth for such a purpose.

For all these reasons, we must do everything we can to make America more self-sufficient.  We must bring manufacturing back through tax and other policies.  And we must engage in a serious effort both to conserve energy use as well as wean ourselves from our addiction to oil by developing alternative energy sources and alternative energy transport.

A Stronger Citizenry.  The United States, when compared with the rest of the industrialized world, ranks nowhere near the top, more often near the bottom, on various markers that measure the strength of its citizenry:  education, health, and political engagement.

Education.  Whether we look at the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) math and science scores which show the US ranking  25th and 24th, respectively, among 30 OECD countries, or data that places us 18th out of 23 comparing high school graduation rates, or 15th in college completion, or 10th in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds holding an associate degree or higher, the status of US education is definitely not world class.  (Note: the number of OECD countries used for comparison varies because of the number that have available data.)

Health.  Looking at health status compared with the other OECD countries, the US again does not fare well.  The US ranks 26th in life expectancy, has the 7th highest rate of infant mortality, ranks dead last (first) by far in the percentage of overweight and obese children and adults, has the 6th highest rate of diabetes, ranks 18th in 5-year survival for cervical cancer though it does rank 1st in breast cancer survival, and ranks dead last in access to health care (2013, so before Obamacare fully kicked in) … oddly the US ranks 1st in people self-reporting that they were in good health … all this despite the US spending 2 1/2 times the OECD average on health care per capita.

Political Engagement.  The US ranks 31st out of the 34 OECD countries in the percentage of voting age population who actually vote.  The result is that a rather small minority typically decides who governs us.  For example, in 2000, the voter turnout was 
51.2%.  Since Bush won with 47.9% of the popular vote (actually less than Gore got), only 24.5% or less the 1/4 of the voting age population elected Bush.  In 2008, the voter turnout rate was higher, 58.2%.  And Barack Obama won with 52.9% of the vote.  But that still meant that 30.8%, less than 1/3, of the voting age population elected him.  

It should be a point of extreme concern and embarrassment, if not shame, that the US … the founder of the modern democratic state and the wealthiest and economically strongest country in the world … has its elections decided by such a small minority of its voting-age population.  That election results express the will of the majority is even more important now that the two major parties have such extremely divergent positions on most issues.

Regardless what the cause is … voter apathy, voting barriers (for example, our elections occur on a weekday whereas most occur on the weekend or a declared holiday), poor campaigns, lack of education … something is not right and it must be addressed.  For starters, just changing the day that our elections are held, or declaring at least Presidential elections a national holiday, would most likely make a significant difference.  

But Republicans seem intent on doing everything they can to create more barriers to voting, not less.  Could this be because studies consistently show that non-voters are disproportionately poor or less well-off, younger, and tend to favor higher taxes and more government spending?  For example, 46% of nonvoters have household incomes below $30,000, while the percentage among voters is 19%.  43% of nonvoters are people of color, while only 22% of voters are.  And 34% of nonvoters are under 30, while only 10% of voters are.

Our democracy is based on the philosophy of majority rule.  But the reality is far from that.

How can we be a great country, let alone the leader of the world, with a citizenry that is relatively poorly educated, less healthy, and not politically engaged when compared with other developed countries?  A country’s strength and competitiveness are not based on the strength of the top 20% of its citizens, but on the strength of all its citizens.  

In addition to these factors on which there is comparative data, I noted in a recent post, “Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System,” that America has not lived up to its promise or its potential to provide true equal opportunity regarding “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that this was critical to our country’s future well-being.  I noted there that in addition to various factors, including equal access to health care and a quality education, rebuilding a strong middle class was critical.

Improving education, health care, and political engagement, providing meaningful equal opportunity, and rebuilding a strong middle class will require more than a band-aid approach.  We must find the strength to rethink these issues at the most fundamental level and devise a strategy for each that will lift America’s citizenry up to an appropriate level for a country that proclaims itself to be the best in the world.

A Healthy Infrastructure.  In another recent post, “Our Archaic Transportation System,” I lamented how our transportation system is not up to meeting our needs now, let alone in the coming decades.  The same has been reported elsewhere on everything ranging from our electric grid to the state of our water and sewer systems.  

We pride ourselves on being a great and powerful country, on the cutting edge of technology, and yet in many important areas of our nation’s infrastructure, not only is it outdated but it is often crumbling and undependable.  This situation must be corrected if we are to continue being a strong nation and a world leader.  

Addressing most of the issues I’ve noted will necessitate a shift in our national priorities, as I’ve noted in various posts.  If we are serious about growing a stronger America, improving our nation’s health, it will require us to reexamine what is important and how best to use our resources to provide what is needed.  This will require a nation and a Congress who first and foremost ask, “What is in the best interest of the nation,” because they understand that what is in the nation’s best interest is ultimately also in our own individual best interest.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System

America has a failed economic/social/political system.  I did not use the word “broken” because America has never reached its promise, never fulfilled its potential.  What is the promise of America?  It’s found in the words of the Declaration pf Independence … “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are a country of great wealth, the strongest economy in the world, and yet we live in a country where a vast portion of our population have never tasted the fruits of equality and where income inequality is greater than it’s ever been.  We live in a country where for a vast portion of our population, because of the lack of meaningful equal opportunity, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are almost meaningless, a cruel tease.

First, let’s be clear what is meant by “equality” and “all men are created equal.”  When the writers of the Declaration used that phrase, they were speaking in a spiritual sense, not a practical one.  It was a statement of the Enlightenment’s vision of natural rights, as elucidated by John Locke, among others.  
Obviously, all men are not created or born equal because they are born to vastly different circumstances, whether to poverty or wealth, whether disabled or healthy, whether black or white.  What the Declaration meant is that all men (and women) come out of the womb equal in the sense that they all have the God-spirit inside them, they are all of equal value.

And because they are all of equal value in the eyes of their Creator, they all have and deserve an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This equality does not mean that they all have a right to have or achieve the same status and wealth, but that every person has an equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

What each person makes of that equal opportunity is that person’s responsibility.  But it is the system’s responsibility to insure that everyone have that equal opportunity.  That latter thought is expressed in the Declaration when it says, “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

How has our system fared in that regard?  In answering this question, I shall limit myself to the period post-Civil War, post-14th Amendment, post-19th amendment.  Clearly, before those points, even viewed in a strictly legal sense,  the vast majority of the population was in no sense equal, either because they were female or they were black.

First, though, the question must be asked, what is necessary, what is the foundation that an economic/social/political system need provide, in order for there to be meaningful equal opportunity?  I think the following:
  • The laws must provide for equal opportunity.
  • Social authority and peer pressure must not tolerate any deviation from equal opportunity and discrimination must be denounced as unacceptable.  
  • All children, regardless of background, must have an equal education opportunity both with regards to its quality and to its accessibility.  
  • Recognizing that a certain minimum standard of living is necessary for a person’s feeling of self-worth because it enables them to secure safe housing and sufficient food, the system must provide a method to secure that standard of living for those who cannot obtain it of their own accord.
  • All people must be guaranteed access to adequate health care; if you do not have your health, you cannot make full use of equal opportunity.
  • The system must foster a sound middle class, which is often a launching pad for further upward mobility.  
1.   Legal equal opportunity.  With the glaring continuing exception of sexual orientation (and gender identity), Federal law and most state laws provide that discrimination is illegal in all areas of the public sphere … employment, housing, entertainment, restaurants, etc.  By executive order, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in federal employment.  And by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, discrimination in marriage laws is now illegal.

2.   De facto discrimination.  But despite all the laws on the books, de facto discrimination towards blacks and towards other people of color is rampant.  Discrimination towards women is not uncommon, and certainly pay equality is not a general practice.  

Part of the reason for this continuing discrimination is our history … old attitudes die hard …  but the other part is we cannot say that “social authority and peer pressure” do not tolerate discrimination and denounce it.  Some social authorities do, and in some communities peer pressure does, but as a general matter, discrimination is the elephant in the room.  It’s there but few care to discuss it.  Those in power in our society appear to have little or no interest in ending this discrimination.

3.    Equal opportunity of education.   Before children even enter school, a significant factor impacts their educational opportunity … the extent to which they are exposed to basic learning skills, including reading, during their pre-school years. Not surprisingly, inner city children living in poverty suffer most from a lack of such exposure. We cannot change the family circumstances into which a child is born, but we can insure that every child receive full exposure to learning skills through pre-school programs.

Regarding primary and secondary education, there is huge inequality in the quality of education between states, within states, and within metropolitan areas.   The reason is that very little funding comes from the federal government (10%).  The rest comes from state and local sources, with local property taxes accounting for 50-70% of available funding in most localities.  Thus, the funding available varies greatly depending on the wealth of the school district’s residents.  

While quality of education is not solely dependent on the amount of money spent per student, it does have a real impact.   The other significant factor impacting quality is the attitude of teachers.  Many teachers in inner city school seem to view their students as hopeless and so put forth little effort beyond crowd control.  

The combination of these two factors delivers a double whammy to inner city school children.  The average high school graduation rate in the 50 largest cities was only 53% according to a 2009 report.  And for those who did manage to graduate, without a solid primary and secondary education the thought of higher education is so far out of reach it isn’t even a dream for most.  

That such students are in fact, however, not hopeless is shown by the ample examples of schools run with a different attitude that achieve "amazing" results with underprivileged children. 

4.   Minimum standard of living.  The Federal government spends a huge amount of money (11% of the Federal budget) on a variety of programs to provide financial assistance to those in need, primarily to families with dependent children.  This funding is augmented somewhat by the states.  With regards to food stamps, it should be noted that a large percentage of recipients work … the working poor.  But despite all of this spending, not only do we have a stubborn poverty rate that hovers around 14%, but the living conditions that most people in poverty encounter are horrendous and homelessness is a serious problem.  

What has gone wrong?  I understand the problem is complex, but rather than spend money on education and jobs to bring people into the workforce, we have doled out money to people and thus not surprisingly their status has typically not changed; they have become more dependent, not less so.  And there is no talk of fundamentally changing the system to help raise the poor out of poverty.  The reason … those with power in society really aren’t interested.  Clinton’s workfare program was a farce.  All the Republicans want to do is cut aid.  They seem to think that if you’re poor, if you don’t have a job, it’s your fault.  You’re lazy.

5.   Universal health care.  Despite all the effort to pass Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, and the increase in the numbers of insured Americans that resulted from that measure, we still have a very inefficient, cumbersome system that relies primarily on private insurers.  And while many more are insured now, the plans that they can afford are mediocre in their coverage and many who previously had better employer-sponsored plans now find themselves with either plans that cost them more or provide less coverage and thus ultimately cost them more if there is a health emergency.  

This criticism is separate from that of our health care system which has so many serious problems that it is almost dysfunctional.  We continue to have both a health care system and accessibility to it that is substantially inferior to most of the other industrialized countries.

6.   A sound middle class.  This is the one area where the United States really used to excel.  We had a large sound middle class.  But then globalization and the trade agreements that fostered that movement resulted in millions of jobs leaving the U.S.  This was great for multi-national corporations, but bad for workers.  As a result, many formerly middle-class men are now unemployed, or they have found work at only a fraction of their former wage, or if still at their former jobs their wages have stagnated since the mid-70s because of overseas competition.   

Why would successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, support this disastrous movement?  Because power in the U.S. lies with the major corporations and they wanted to be free to move jobs where labor costs less.  And because economic theorists said it was the right thing to do.  There has been no movement to either build new middle-class wage jobs or bring old ones back.  What effort there has been recently is to raise the wages of service workers, as in the fast food industry, to a living wage, which is important but does not create a middle class

Bottom line on all these fronts … our economic, social, and political system is controlled by powerful corporations and people with substantial wealth.  These forces have shown no interest in the betterment of their fellow citizens.  Their only interest is their pursuit of ever more wealth and power.  As a result, the Republican Party has no interest in the issues I’ve raised.  And Democrats, while they have an interest, lack the courage to stand up to these interests and call for a massive restructuring of how our government provides for the common good and helps those in need.  

And so the rich and powerful have gotten richer and more powerful, while the poor and middle class have gotten poorer and more powerless.   The problem is not so much one of insufficient funds or sources of revenue.  The problem is “the vision thing,” a lack of leadership and skewed priorities.  A disconnect from the promise of our founding documents.

This problem is far-reaching, extending into all areas of government responsibility, not just those affecting the poor and middle class.  As has become increasingly clear to me through my writing, regardless what the issue … the environment and energy policy, tax fairness, globalization, financial institution regulation, our archaic transportation system, replacing/repairing our infrastructure, education, health care, civil rights, foreign policy, and defense … it all comes back to real power residing with powerful corporations and the wealthy, not the voters who elect their representatives and the President.  We have a democracy in format, but not in substance.  

Money and power have of course always been a factor in American, and indeed all, politics.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And it’s also appropriate.  Business and finance have an important role to play in the health of our economy and should be supported.  

But the grip on power and influence by major corporations and the wealthy has increased greatly over the course of the last decade or more to the detriment of the common good.  Our system has lost its balance.  The Supreme Court decision in Citizens v United will surely aggravate the situation.  

If we are to reclaim government of the people, by the people, and for the people. then we must find a way to get big money if not totally then mostly out of politics.  Public financing of election is one obvious way.   There may be others, but that is not the topic for this post.

This will require an aroused electorate, because this will be the first test of the power of the people v the power of corporations.  (See my post, “How the Koch Brothers Hijacked the Middle Class Revolt and How To Take It Back.”)  Only if there is a popular movement so strong that members of Congress know that if they do not implement the will of the people they will be turned out of office does this have a chance of getting passed into law.