Sunday, June 24, 2018

Trump Wants Americans to Be Like North Koreans

One of the more amazing, and revealing, statements made by Donald Trump after the Singapore Summit was the following, referring to the relationship between Kim Jong Un and his people, “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

So now we have proof of what we’ve feared: at heart, Donald Trump is a dictator.  He wants everyone to agree with him.  He brooks no disagreement.  He wants the American people to take his word as gospel and follow it accordingly.

Donald Trump does not have the understanding that when he was elected President, he was not given sweeping powers to do as he will.  He did not receive a mandate to remake the Presidency and government in his image.  His core supporters may well have given him such a mandate, and that amounts to perhaps 1/3 of voters.  Certainly that’s significant, but that does not give him the power and latitude he seeks..

Normally, our system of government … the famous checks and balances … would stop a President like Trump doing what he will.  Unfortunately, at this point in time, there is no check or balance because all three branches of government … executive, legislative, and judicial (the Supreme Court) … are in the same hands.  Not even the civil service can act as an internal check on the executive because he has placed at the heads of each agency people who are antagonistic to the very mission of those agencies to protect the public.

OMG!  It wasn’t until I wrote these words that I realized that Donald Trump has created the core of a dictatorial government … one where all think the same and do the master’s bidding.  The people gave him a like-minded legislative majority.  He gave the Supreme Court a radical conservative majority through his appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the court.  And as I just stated, he has placed at the head of each federal agency people who are determined to change the mission of the agency from one dedicated to protecting the public, to one dedicated to supporting big business.

We as a country are in graver danger than I ever realized, even in the short-term.  Viewed in this light, the significance of the upcoming mid-term elections are even more critical.  The control of Congress, or at least one of its houses, must pass to the Democrats in order to place a brake on this dictatorial presidency.  

As Democrats talk to the people, this needs to be one of the talking points.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Concept of “Working Poor” Should Be Unacceptable

First what does it mean to be poor?  It turns out that’s not as simple to answer as one might think.

Doing research I found that “poor” means different things to different people.  Some definitions seem to be rooted in the old institution of the poorhouse, which was a home for paupers.  Poorhouses continued to exist well into the 20th century, in Ulster County, NY till 1976.  Thus, defines “poor” as having little or no money or other means of support.  To me that’s the definition of being destitute, not poor.  

Other definitions have a more enlightened, broader, less pejorative, perspective.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it is as lacking sufficient money to have a decent living standard.  This to me is more in keeping with a modern sensibility.  Being poor is not being able to make ends meet consistently while maintaining a reasonable standard of living.  The indigent thus become a subset of the poor.  

Clearly, it is this second definition that encompasses the working poor; therefore it will be the definition used in this post.  In our current system, one can work and still be poor, and thus often still dependent upon charity or public support in order to make ends meet.  "Working poor" should be an oxymoron, but currently it's not.

Much has been written about the working poor in this country.  Many, mostly Republicans, argue that it’s just a fact of life.  Others, mainly Democrats, argue that in a country as prosperous as the United States, people working full-time should be receiving what’s termed a “living wage.”  

What is a living wage?  It’s defined as having enough money to meet a family’s basic needs at a decent standard of living, but absent what many Americans consider necessities of life.  A “living wage” thus does not include money for eating out, entertainment, any kind of insurance, or saving for a rainy day.  It is a step up from the poverty threshold, in that it takes into account the true cost of the necessities of life … food, child care, medical care, housing, and transportation … yet is still bare bones.  Anyone earning below a living wage as defined would thus be classified as poor.

The Federal poverty threshold, on the other hand, is based on findings from 1960s research that families spent 1/3 of their income on food.  So in setting the threshold, the government calculated the cost of food and multiplied it by 3.  That is still the basis of the calculation.  It’s just adjusted for inflation.

But that method of calculation makes the Federal standard outdated and woefully inadequate.  Food now accounts for only 1/7 of an average family’s expenses, as the cost of housing, child care, transportation, and health care have grown disproportionately.  So people who meet the Federal poverty threshold are still poor.  That is why eligibility for many assistance programs have eligibility levels at several multiples of the Federal poverty threshold.

Why is the government standard so miserly?  There are probably several reasons.  One is the old perspective that many still hold that being poor means being close to destitution.  Another is that as the leading democracy and strongest economy in the world, the government wants the number of people living in poverty to be as small as possible, for P.R. purposes.  Yet another is that given our “safety net,” the more people who are classified as living in poverty, the higher the expenses are to the government and the taxpayer. 

A different reason is that people do not like being called “poor” or being considered poor; in our culture it is still a pejorative word implying a whole panoply of failings.  This can be seen in Webster’s definition of poverty, “lacking a socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”  Thus if you are poor you are beyond the social pale.  As a result, there’s little pressure to expand the definition of poverty to include more people.  Finally, people who are not poor just have no idea what being poor in our country means and how many people fall into the category.

Let’s look at actual dollar figures.  The 2018 Federal poverty threshold for a family of four is just over $25,000.  If the sole support for a family earned what many Democrats argue should be the minimum wage of $15 an hour, that would amount to a gross of $30,000 a year or an approximate net take home of $26,500.  Just above the poverty threshold.  

A living wage for a family of four, on the other hand, would be around $60,000, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator; more than twice the Federal poverty threshold.  If you are supporting a small family, the minimum wage in most states is a poverty wage.  Even the target of $15 is, as shown above, barely above the poverty threshold if there is only one adult in the family working.  If the family had 2 adults and both were working full-time at $15 an hour, they would then together earn just under a living wage.

Thus, in order to have a living wage for a family of four … and remember what this does not include  either the single worker needs to have a pretty good job bringing in $60,000 a year, or two members of the household need to each earn $15 an hour and work full-time.

How many people make up the working poor, unable to make ends meet on a consistent basis?  In 2012, using a guideline of 200% of the poverty line, which would be close to the living wage as explained above, 12 million full-time workers earned below that amount and constituted, in this particular analysis, the working poor.  

In another report based on 2013 Census data, 1 out of 3 “working families,” 10.6 million out of  32.6 million, had incomes under 200% of the poverty line.  While the definition of “working families” was not supplied, the numbers suggest that it is similar to the 2012 study noted above.

Even using the Federal government’s poverty guideline and definition of the working poor as people who spend 27 weeks or more a year in the labor force, in 2014, 9.5 million people were working poor.  A much lower income threshold but a broader labor category.

No matter how you cut it, a large number of Americans are in families of the working poor.  Using the living wage threshold, roughly 30-40 million.  As to the total number of Americans under that threshold, I saw a 2012 figure of 100 million and a 2017 figure of 146 million.  Obviously both can’t be right, but either way, it’s a large percentage of Americans.  

Thus, somewhere between 1 in every 2 Americans and 1 in every 3 Americans were either living in poverty, as defined by the government, or were in families whose incomes were below the living wage threshold, what is also sometimes referred to as low-income, which means they were poor as defined in this post.  

That is a terrible statistic for a country as prosperous as the United States.  Poverty has a a terrible impact on most people and thus is a major drag on the health and well-being of our economy and democracy.  It is also a disgrace and a failure of our system.  A country should be judged not by how its wealthiest citizens fair, but by how its poorest do.  

It would thus be in our best interest, in the best interest of all citizens including the top 1%, to do everything we can to see to it that the maximum number of people are employed at a living wage, whether in the open labor market or in government-organized jobs (such as the Depression-era WPA and CCC), and that those who cannot work receive government support sufficient to keep them out of poverty.  Both our economy and democracy would be on a firmer footing.

No one in the U.S. should live in conditions without enough food to eat. a secure roof over their heads, and proper health care.  One can’t pursue one’s right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” without those basics.  If business and government working together aren’t providing that foundation then we are not living up to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Shame of Religion: An Open Letter to All Christian-Islamic-Jewish Religious Leaders

Most of the major conflicts in the world over the last 1500 years have either been a result of religious intolerance or were supported by religious authority.  This makes it the #1 cause or abetter of death and misery at the hands of man.  Religion has also been central to the neurotic suffering of man, his lack of true self-love.

Something just doesn’t seem right here.  I ask you, what should be the essential function of any religion?  In the words of the angels who announced the birth of Christ, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”  That about says it all. 

And indeed, the mystical traditions of all three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - have an almost identical approach to their mission of leading man to be at peace with himself and his fellow man.  They all teach that the true nature of man is peace and goodness.  The religious establishments of the three religions, however, have pursued a different mission, with catastrophic (the word is not too strong) results for mankind. 

The common teaching of the mystical traditions is that the God-essence and thus peace is our true self, not our ego. They further teach, however, that our true nature is unknown to us; it has been concealed from us. And so it is for us to rediscover it, to uncover it, and allow it to embrace us and transform us.  (As an aside, this is also the teaching of Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the classic secular Greek philosophies that speak to how we should live life.)

  • Christian Gnosticism teaches that the human true self is a fragment of the divine essence, the “divine spark.”  But  we are “ignorant of our true origins and our essential nature” because forces cause us to remain attached to earthly things that keep us enslaved. It is this ignorance which brings about sin; man is not inherently sinful. Salvation from that ignorance is stimulated by the teachings of others, such as those of Christ, but man must ultimately find his own truth.
  • According to Jewish Kabbalah, “every soul is pure in essence and the only salvation is to become enlightened (i.e. to remember the truth of who and what we really are). … Salvation is the process of clearing out whatever obstructs our manifestation of the concealed divine image. … Kabbalah leads to the conclusion that ultimately we must rely on ourselves - for we alone have the power to save ourselves.” It is to our heart we must look for guidance, not our ego-mind.
  • Islamic Sufism is again about the journey of self-realization. Sufi means “unfoldment of the spirit towards its original condition.”  That original self is the Divine presence in man’s heart. Our heart is love, faith, trust, compassion, wisdom, and peace. Insecurity is a product of the mind. When one truly knows oneself, one knows God. “He has to find God within himself, but He can only be found in a heart that has been purified by the fire of love [of God].”

When you look at these teachings of the mystical traditions, it is clear that we are all children of the same God.  Regardless whether the messenger was Moses, Christ, or Muhammad, the message of the religion, the message of God, is the same.  The road to peace within man and to goodwill among men is for man to reconnect with the divine-essence he was born with and free himself from his ego-mind, from which flow the seven deadly sins and all strife. 

Indeed, the very word “religion” is ultimately derived from the latin, meaning “to reconnect.”  (Note: The more common derivation given is the latin, religio, but that word itself is a compound derived from the latin words meaning “to reconnect” or “to rebind.”) 

There is nothing in the mystical traditions that promotes one religion over another.  There is nothing in any that says it is the only way to salvation, to God.

The teaching of the religious establishments of the three faiths, however, has been very different.  Regarding relations among men, for most of their history each espoused that it was the only true way; that the others were false.  That the others were threats to the true religion.  For the powerful forces of Christianity and Islam, the others were to be dealt with as an enemy, at times ghettoized, at times killed in religious wars.  While today the more liberal branches of the three faiths certainly do not espouse such teachings, the more orthodox ones still view the others, and even the more liberal sects of their own religion, as being infidels or traitors.

How did this perversion of religious thought happen?  “Religion is usually started by pure, enlightened beings like Jesus whose aims are to help humanity understand higher spiritual truths and make the world a better place. Then sometime later the followers of those spiritual masters formalize, set forth, the teachings into a set of religious doctrine [the Bible, the Quran] and build institutions with seats of power to propagate the faith and control people.”  A change in mission.  

We know today without question that the writers of each of the holy books were not God or even the prophets.  Even when the words are presented as spoken by the prophet or God, we have no way of knowing what words the prophet actually spoke and what words are the words of the writers, devoted religious men but lesser beings with possibly their own take on the prophet’s words.  

As for the institutions, like many others, their survival (and so the faith’s) often overwhelmed the original purpose … here, the purpose of religion being to reconnect man with his divine essence and promote peace and goodwill among men … and so segregation, hatred, and prejudice were used to further the cause of the now one-true-faith. 

The results of these teachings were religious wars, starting with the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries and the Reformation Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries down to the Irish “troubles” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Granted, most of these conflicts were to a large extent secular fights for power, but the line between religious and secular was often blurred (or nonexistent) and the religious establishments lent a very essential and ready hand to support the secular contests.  There was no religious voice saying, “This is wrong.  We are all children of the same God.  We should not be fighting each other.”

The same is true for wars that were not a result of religious intolerance.  All the major wars of the 20th century were such … WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnamese War.  Yet in each case, the religious establishments in the western countries mostly supported these secular wars of power.  It was only outliers such as Father Berrigan during the Vietnam War who protested.  It is the case, however, that much of the U.S. religious establishment did protest the Iraqi war.  Why the switch?  Probably because it was unavoidably clear to most people that the war in Iraq was not a “just” war.

As a result of these wars and conflicts, millions died fighting; civilian deaths were many times higher.  Add to that those who were seriously wounded physically as well as those wounded mentally and the number would be staggering.  

Then there are the human tragedies of genocide, slavery, and lynching, which are further examples of man’s inhumanity to man.  And here again, the religious establishments were either supportive or silent.  In one instance, the Spanish inquisition, the church was actually both instigator and implementer.  

And let us not forget colonialism and its devastating impact on native populations.  That form of oppression and religious/cultural intolerance was again supported by each country’s religious establishment.  The white man’s “burden” was very much the view of the religious establishments, as they saw their mission as spreading the faith by saving the heathens.

But the even greater tragedy, although more subtle and hidden, has been the impact of the religious establishments’ teaching on man’s relationship with himself and those around him.  Whether in the 16th century or in current times, the teaching of the religious establishment has not empowered man to live life well … which is to be at peace and happy.  

For those religions that preach the doctrine of original sin, what a terrible label to place on man that he is born a sinner.  The Catholic Church tries to have it both ways, saying that each man is born in the image of God, but his nature is inclined toward evil because of original sin; its practical emphasis, however, unfortunately is on man’s evil nature.  

Even those religious establishments that do not espouse the doctrine of original sin still do not teach that every man has the divine-essence inside him.  That the ego pulls him away from his true self causing him endless suffering.  And that man’s salvation lies in reconnecting with his true self and releasing all desires and emotions, which are a product of his ego-mind, and embracing all aspects of his being and experience.  They do not teach that the messages/urgings of our culture are the modern equivalent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

What a different world it would be if religious establishments saw their mission first and foremost as enabling us to see the God-essence in ourselves and bringing about peace on earth and goodwill toward men.  Rather than preserving the institution and increasing its power through propagation of the faith and its hold on people.  To the extent that religious leaders are more servants of their establishment and our culture than of God, their spiritual bona fides must be questioned.

I pray that religious leaders of all faiths lay down their rhetorical arms, embrace each other as equally valid representatives of God, and embrace all people as not just children of God but as having the divine-essence in them.  I pray that all religious leaders return to the teaching of their mystical traditions and lead the way to saving mankind from himself.