Sunday, July 24, 2016

Economic Justice for All

We live at a time where there is no greater challenge for America (yes, even greater than the terrorist threat) than forging a nation of greater economic justice and income equality.  The existence of a large portion of the population struggling to keep their financial heads above water - who 40 years ago were solidly middle class and prospering - and another large segment who are poor and without opportunity -  as they have always been - creates a drag on our economy, a drag on the social fabric that holds us together as a nation, and a drag on the democratic strength of America.

The Declaration of Independence famously says that all men are created equal and that they are all endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Less well known is the fact that it further states that it is government’s purpose to secure those rights.

Thus whether from a sense of America’s founding values, a general sense of social justice, or a practical desire to strengthen America economically, we must find ways to reverse the trend of the past 40 years, recreate a robust middle class, and for the first time provide real opportunity for the poor to rise up from poverty.

Some will say that these are lofty goals and beyond our current means, that we are a country in financial stress with a huge debt.  To answer that I would say that we are a very rich country and there is in fact no shortage of available funds to meet these goals without further increasing the debt.  It is a question of priorities.  It is a question of how much revenue is raised and how that revenue is spent.  It will no doubt mean having to increase our revenue as well as shift current government spending patterns.  So be it.

Given the importance of the proposed actions to the health of our nation, such changes are not just warranted they are necessary.  If we want America to be strong as a nation and for its people to be strong in body and soul, then we must act.

What are the practical ways in which such a policy commitment to the American people would be carried out?  The people deserve to know.

1.  Through renegotiating international trade deals and changing the tax code, we will both shift many lost jobs back to the United States as well as encourage the creation of new manufacturing middle-class jobs here.  Our current free trade agreements and tax code have worked to increase the wealth of corporations while destroying much of our middle class by shipping their jobs overseas and either leaving them unemployed or underemployed in low-paying service industry jobs.

2.  We will embark on a massive infrastructure replacement program which is desperately needed to ensure a strong America.  Virtually anywhere you look, our infrastructure is both outdated and in dangerously bad repair.  By replacing this failing infrastructure with technologically advanced systems we will strengthen America, we will create new business for a multitude of American companies, and we will create jobs for millions of American workers.

3.  Through increased investment in education in areas of our cities and country which have historically suffered from a lower rate of investment and quality than those areas of greater affluence,  we will create the first generation of American children who truly will be able to experience equal education opportunity.  No child deserves to be left behind.

4.  No American, regardless of color, should be discriminated against.  It is anti-American, based on both the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.  The laws already on the books against discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity must be more vigorously enforced.  Employers and institutions should be required to have plans in place that strongly discourage discrimination.  (This is already required by some states; it should be Federal law and thus uniform.)

In limited areas however, such as education, where Blacks and other poor people have not had access to equal education opportunity, we need to continue affirmative action to help bring the country into balance.  But once the education initiatives outlined above have been put in place and a generation of children have benefited from them, there would be no further justification for affirmative action.  Each person should be judged on their merit.

5.  To pay for these programs, in addition to shifting current budget patterns, additional revenue will need to be raised, as noted above.  A large portion of that increased revenue should come from higher income and other taxes (such as luxury) on the very rich.  

Let me be clear … it is no sin to be rich and the ability to become rich is a strong motivator in our society to perform well and succeed, which in turn benefits society in many ways.  However, there comes a point where a person has acquired so much wealth where not only does one have more money than one knows what to do with but where, from a social contract standpoint, it becomes obscene.  Such income, TBD, should be taxed at a high rate.  Citizens who have profited to such an extent from the opportunities afforded by our economic/political system have a social obligation, as citizens, to pay back to the system to ensure that it stays strong and that more people come to have such opportunities.

Besides being what I think the country needs at this point in time, if Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party adopted such a slogan and program as a key element of the 2016 campaign (yes, many of my points are already included in the 2016 Platform, but a platform is cumbersome), it would go a long way … assuming it was presented enthusiastically, vigorously … to blunting Trump’s claim to be the savior of the forgotten.  It would maximize her chances of not just winning, but winning big and Democrats’ regaining the Senate and perhaps even the House.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Understanding Rage and Bringing Us Back from the Brink

Many people would look at the phrase “understanding rage” as an oxymoron.  To them rage is irrational.  It’s craziness.   And because it’s not a rational state, it cannot be understood.  It’s true that there is no reasoning with rage.  The rational forces of democracy are not only helpless to hold it in check, the democratic process gives rage the opportunity to assume the ascendancy and control.

But while the emotion of rage is irrational and there is no reasoning with it, the experiences that trigger rage are very rational.   Those experiences can be countered with reasoning if combined with heartfelt mea culpas and action that counters the rational source of the rage.

What is behind rage?  Whether one looks at the white, formerly middle-class now unemployed/underemployed, worker or people of color or Muslims, regardless of country, the cause of rage is exploitation.  People either feel that they have not been given a chance to get what they deserve or have been promised, or they feel that they have lost what they rightfully had.  In either case, an economic or political force is blamed as the exploiter.  

People in general feel used and abused, regardless of their color or status in life.  One could probably safely say that 90 - 95% of people in the U.S. feel exploited in some way.  What they mostly don’t realize is that it’s the top 1% who is doing the exploiting (except for Blacks where the percentage is much higher).  It is they who control the wheels of international commerce and government.  It is they who have brought about the sad state of human life that most of us suffer from.  In a very important way, while circumstances among people vary greatly, most of us are all in the same boat … we just don’t know it.

Those in that top 1% will denigrate such comments as promoting class warfare.  The U.S. has historically been said to be a classless society.  And so to promote class warfare is un-American.

While we have never had a class-structured society as in England or India, to say that we are a classless society is to ignore reality.  At some point, it is necessary to call a spade a spade.

The reader might say, “OK, I can see that this make sense in many situations, for example why Blacks can get so angry, but how does exploitation explain Muslim extremist rage?”  That very pertinent question is actually rather simple to answer.  

The exploitation, or just as important the feeling of exploitation, exists on many levels.  I shall proceed from the more global to the narrower concerns, the former of which feed the latter.  

The forces of Islam controlled or had great influence in much of the Mediterranean region from around 600 - 1200 AD.  Later the Ottoman empire controlled much of the Eastern half of the Mediterranean region for centuries.  Only as the European states became more powerful in the 19th century and colonized northern Africa did the empire weaken.  It finally collapsed after it was on the loosing side of WWI; it’s lands were carved up and controlled by the British and French.  

So after almost 1300 years of great political/military power and cultural preeminence, the Muslim world shrank and sank to a rather insignificant hovel controlled/exploited by the Western powers.  During much of the 20th century, the Muslim countries were treated no better than the European colonies of Africa and Asia.  This is global exploitation #1.

The other aspect of this defeat by the West was religious.  While the conquests of the 19th Century and WWI were political in nature, to the Muslim mind they were a continuation of the Crusades of the 12th century to free the holy land from “infidels.”  And for a Christian, who is an infidel to the Muslim mind, to call Muslims infidels is a great insult both to themselves and their prophet, Muhammed.  This is global exploitation #2.  

We have seen the seemingly irrational rage when western writers or cartoonists, or fallen Muslims such as Salmon Rushdie, have in some way blasphemed or shown a lack of respect for Muhammed and Islam.  Such violent rage, while never condoned, can be understood against this backdrop of historic exploitation and conquest.

These are the main factors that shape the forces of Jihad against the West, only recently  enabled to be vast and deep-reaching through the power of the Internet and other modern technologies.  Layered on top of these global exploitations/defeats, lies a more direct exploitation that explains why movements such as al-Queda or ISIS or Hamas find so many young people willing to both sacrifice themselves to the cause and kill so many innocent people in the process.

Throughout much of the Muslim world, as well as in the West, many young Muslims find themselves at loose ends … they see no future, are poor, and are politically powerless.  In their own countries, there has been little economic development and the problem of income inequality is even worse than in the U.S.  Poverty and the lack of education is widespread.  For most Muslim young people, there is little cause for hope.  This domestic lack of hope lay at the core of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-12.  It also, layered on top of historical and current exploitation by Israel, lies at the core of the various Palestinian Intifadas.

In the West, the terrorist threat from domestic Muslims has varied greatly.  The greatest terrorist expression has been in France, fed by France’s historically notorious failure or even lack of interest in absorbing North African immigrants into its society, and complicated or augmented by the fact that France was the former colonial power and exploiter in the countries from which these immigrants come.  While England has seen one major terrorist attack, and white Britons are certainly seething, Muslims seem to have been treated better there than France.  

Germany was the home of Muhammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attack, and has seen several small isolated terrorist attacks, but it has not experienced what either France or England has.  Muslims seem to be better integrated into German workforce and society.  Also, Germany was not a former colonial power for them.  

In the U.S., while there certainly have been individuals who have volunteered for the Jihadist cause, either abroad on in the U.S., there seems to be far less alienation among young Muslims here both as a result of their greater access to education and opportunity as well as the religious freedom here.  But while we are not part of the historical record I noted, our support of Israel and our more recent post-9/11 military forays into the Arab world aggravate many even more than history.

So given this understanding, how do we move forward?  How does the world come back from the violent, chaotic brink that we seem to be standing on?  The past is past.  We can’t change it.  However, every society can and must clearly acknowledge the past and be heartfelt in their mea culpas.  For example, in my post, “Reflections on Yom Kippur and Mideast Peace,” I noted that Israel must do this, as well as the Palestinians.

But it cannot stop there.  Words or laws will not suffice.  The injury lies far too deep.  There must be action that reverses past decades or centuries of indifference, discrimination, and exploitation.  What that will be will vary for each country.  But until Muslims and all people feel that they are respected and treated as equals, there will be no peace.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Is There No End to Mass Violence?

In just the past few weeks we have witnessed the mass shooting in Orlando, the suicide bombing at the Istanbul airport, the shooting and machete attack in Bangladesh, and now a bombing in Iraq … a total of more than 250 people dead, and as many injured.  And ISIS is connected either directly or indirectly with all.

But ISIS is certainly not the only fomenter of terrorism.   Nor are only Muslims.  Just as  a reminder, the mass shooting at the African-American church in Charleston, SC in June, 2015 which claimed 9 lives was done by a white-supremacist sympathizer.  And while some of the mass shootings in the U.S. have been tied to an ideology, most were more a function of alienation.

There is, however, a common denominator to all of these acts, and it is hate.  And what is usually the cause of hate?  Fear or feelings of abuse, of being taken advantage of; a deep mistrust.  These feelings can be based on reality or imagined; it makes no difference to their power.  But ultimately, all the feelings that cause hate are based on feelings of insecurity.

I have written before that the cause of all abuse and violence, whether within the home or between groups or nations, is insecurity (see my posts, “The Root of all Abuse and Violence - Insecurity” and “Insecurity as the Cause of Social Conflict and International War”).  Although violence is commonly said to be a fact of human nature, as a Buddhist I know that violence and hatred are not man’s nature.  A Sufi (Muslim), a Kabbalist (Jewish), or a Christian mystic would say the same.

Quite the contrary is true.  The problem is that man’s inherent God-essence, his traits of love and compassion that he is born with and are his birthright, has been overwhelmed by all his experiences, starting virtually at birth, that tell him he is not loved, certainly not unconditionally, and that he needs to be more than he is and have more than he has in order to experience happiness and security; all of which breed insecurity.  This message is so consistent and comes from so many sources … family, friends, peers, society … that man’s knowledge of his true self quickly becomes buried under the layers of this learned experience, this debris of life.

I once asked a monk that if man is born essentially perfect, why do we all suffer?  His answer was, “It’s just the way it is.  It’s like the law of thermodynamics.”

This is not, however, to say that it has to be that way, that it is man’s nature.  It is all a function of action and reaction.  Change the action and you change the reaction.  Remove all the actions that cause insecurity, advance instead those that promote self-esteem and self-love, and you nurture a being and a society in which nothing offends, in which fear and hatred cease to exist and instead there is love and compassion towards all.

While there is no question in my mind and heart that this is true … it is telling that all mystics of all religions and all times have been unanimous in this view of things … we are not starting with a blank slate.  We are starting with a world in which insecurity is the prevalent experience and intolerance or worse, as well as the craving for money and power, are the expressions of that insecurity.

Does that mean that it is hopeless?  That there is nothing to be done to change this intolerable state of affairs … not just the senseless mass violence but all the small acts of violence and abuse that are inflicted on others and well as ourselves?

I don’t think so.  It would take several generations, but I believe that if people were raised differently, as suggested by my book, Raising a Happy Child, we would develop a mass of people who viewed themselves and the world around them differently, and that would in turn eventually impact how politicians view relations within their country and how world leaders view the relations between their countries and the rest of the world.  It is a change in perspective and attitude that would start small and spread throughout mankind.

Will this ever happen?  Unlikely.  Could it, however, happen?  Yes, if encouraged by those forces with moral authority in the world.