October 29, 2011

Institutionalized Corruption

Here is information made available by the Center for Responsive Politics regarding the connection between political contributions and campaign success.  In each case the numbers reflect the percentage of winning candidates who also raised and spent the most money during their campaigns.

·        In 2004
o   98% of House seats (were won by the candidates spending the most money)
o   88% of Senate seats

·        In 2006
o   94% of House seats
o   73% of Senate seats

·        In 2008
o   93% of House seats
o   86% of Senate seats

·        In 2010
o   85% of House seats
o   83% of Senate seats

The correlation between campaign funding and election success is indisputable—the more money that is raised, the more likely a candidate will be elected.  People like Rush Limbaugh claim this isn’t a problem because money, they say, reflects the popularity of candidates.  However, ever since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money can be sourced from deep corporate pockets that are controlled by a small number of individuals who have interests that run counter to that of mainstream Americans. 

There are so many reasons why this is problematic.  Retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens was—and continues to be—critical of the ruling that gave corporations the same freedom of speech granted to individuals and therefore lifted restrictions on the amount of campaign contributions they can make.  As part of his dissenting opinion he said, “The decision is at war with the views of generations of Americans.”  He has since argued that the ruling could afford protection to acts similar to those of Tokyo Rose and the Watergate burglars. 

However, the bigger problem as I see it is that it violates the premise that a person has a single vote.  When corporations are allowed to fund PACs without restriction, it gives powerful CEOs and Board Chairmen the ability to influence a disproportionately large number of votes in a way that could likely run counter to the interests of their employees.  This can result in what many have called institutionalized corruption.  As Fareed Zakaria has recently said:

Special interests pay politicians vast amounts of cash for their campaigns, and in return they get favorable exemptions or credits in the tax code.  In other countries, this sort of bribery takes place underneath bridges and with cash in brown envelopes.  In America it is institutionalized and legal, but it is the same—cash for politicians in return for favorable treatment from the government.  The U.S. tax system is not simply corrupt; it is corrupt in a deceptive manner that has degraded the entire system of American government.  Congress is able to funnel vast sums of money to its favored funders through the tax code without anyone realizing it. 

Please, Tea Party Christians, realize that what your favorite officials are doing to protect corporations is not only bad for America, but reflects the worst kind of corruption.  In light of the recent CBO report on the growing wealth inequality among us, it’s clear that their actions will only line the pockets of the rich and force the middleclass to pay for corporate mistakes.  It will protect the behavior of the CEO of Whirlpool, who acquired a primary competitor, only to close many of its plants and cancel the pension benefits of the people who’d worked there. 

Is that the behavior you want to protect?

October 26, 2011

Indulgences and the Influence of the Rich

A sad aspect of Christianity’s history occurred during the Middle Ages, when representatives of the church sought money from parishioners through the granting of indulgences.  Essentially, pardoners—armed with mandates to collect alms—promised salvation to those who paid for it.  Indulgences were seen by Martin Luther as the purchase and sale of salvation and as a way to justify acts of great evil.  This was one of the catalysts that ushered in the Protestant Reformation. 

Today we see the practice for what it is—barbaric and based primarily upon greed.  However, future generations will make the same claim about a similar evil among us.  In this nation, where a vast majority of people claim to be Christian, we see political power being bought by the rich, while institutions and processes meant to defend the middleclass are dismantled.  A good example of this is how collective bargaining rights have been restricted in many states, even as the influence of a rich few, like the Koch family, grows in ways that brings them unprecedented access.

Why do Christians tolerate this, when their Savior said, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, ye did it not to me”?  Why, in particular, do the Tea Party faithful applaud draconian budget cuts that cause fire fighters and teachers to lose their jobs, even while the richest among us horde the cash they receive through tax savings?

There are two reasons why this occurs.  For starters, we’re not Christian—at least not in the way Jesus taught.  Hopefully you’ve read compelling evidence that supports that view elsewhere in this blog, but it doesn’t help that Herman Cain—who claims God told him to run for the presidency—says, “If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself.”  Apparently, he believes our primary goal in life should be the acquisition of wealth and shame on anyone who chooses to be a school teacher who’d rather prepare children for life, but can’t keep a job in today’s uneasy economic climate. 

But a notion I’ve only alluded to is nearly as important as an explanation for the inequality in our nation.  We’re witnessing an institutional corruption that mirrors the indulgences practiced in the Middle Ages.  We say our freedom of speech applies to corporations and so we allow them to fund the campaigns of politicians, which they control like an army of ventriloquists’ dummies.  Then we watch while wetlands are destroyed to access a few more barrels of oil.  We allow the wealthiest corporations in the world to report billions of dollars in profit and pay nothing in taxes.  We deregulate an industry that subsequently sells radioactive derivatives to our pension funds in a way that nearly bankrupts us. 

Why do we tolerate this? 

There are ways to take back our nation.  Former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, has what I think is a great idea.  Quite simply, it’s this: Cause all campaign contributions to be put in a blind trust so that candidates don’t know who their donors are.  This step should reduce the risk of an inequitable quid pro quo. 

October 23, 2011

God Told Me to Run

When I was a student at BYU, many young men were coming home from missionary service eager to get on with their lives and praying for guidance to find a future marriage partner.  A not-atypical returned missionary—after receiving what he presumed to be an answer to prayer—would go to a young woman and tell her that God had revealed to him that they should marry.  This sometimes resulted in great confusion for the young lady and it happened often enough that the church’s ecclesiastical leaders assured BYU co-eds that they were equally entitled to inspiration before making a decision as important as marriage. 

A corollary to this is the declaration made by multiple presidential candidates that God told them to run for office.  This, I’m sure, will sway many fundamentalists who will accept the assertion as “revealed word” and vote in accordance with it.  However, when it comes to group decision-making, the claim to having received revelation is, in my opinion, a death knell.  This is due, in part, because there is no way to prove the claim and therefore no demands for proof, a condition that leaves little basis for examination.  It’s deemed enough to say, “God told me so.” 

The problem with this, however, is that where there is no examination, there is no debate.  And when ideas aren’t compared and discussed, there is no progress.  Take, for example, the case for global warning: No logic or empirical evidence can sway fundamental Christians from the idea that God gave them dominion over the earth and that if global warming becomes a problem, the righteous can pray it away.  Never mind that this is tantamount to kicking the ball into God’s court.  Never mind that He helps those who help themselves.

This idea was addressed by Harvard physics professor, Lisa Randall, who recently wrote in a Time magazine article, the following:

With science, we put together observations with explanatory frameworks, whose predictions can be tested and ultimately agreed on.  Empirically based logic and the revelatory nature of faith are very different methods for seeking answers, and only logic can be systematically improved and applied.

Combine this idea with the difficulty of reaching agreement on matters of faith and it’s clear that reliance on revelation is dangerous.  There are over 10,000 Christian sects that profess a wide variety of beliefs.  Which of their interpretations of sacred text is correct?  Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this blog, anyone who thinks the Bible is consistent in its worldview simply isn’t paying attention.  On nearly every important topic of the day, the Bible can be used to support a range of conclusions that leads to moral ambiguity.

When it comes to personal issues, inspiration can be an important part of life.  It is not helpful, however, when directing the lives of others. 

October 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Most people think the phrase, “It takes money to make money” to be a truism, and in doing so they make apparent their belief that the economic rules regulating our world are rigged.  Statistics seem to prove this view out.  Over the last decade, the wealthy have gotten richer, while the middle-class have lost net worth through diminished home equity and 401K balances.  While many Tea Party members believe this to be unfair, they think our government is part of the problem, and they're so steeped in cynicism that many aim for the dismantling of our government, despite its duty to protect and defend. They cheer when Grover Nordquist says we must drown the government in a bathtub and they fight against nearly all regulation, believing that government is best when it stays out of the way.

Now the same people are criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement, which protests the economic reality that says the wealthy need not shoulder a commensurate obligation to maintain the nation's well-being.  Why conservatives choose to protect Wall Street interests can only be explained by their need for the campaign contributions big business lavishes on its cronies.  But here's their dilemma: They must either 1) acknowledge that there's something wrong about bankers getting bailed out while regular people get foreclosed upon and do something about it, or 2) argue that the perception is incorrect.  The former will require regulation from a government that they demand to be less intrusive, and the latter can't be advisable, since the belief that our system is corrupt is central to the Tea Party's suspicious worldview.  

I was once a Wall Street banker--in fact, I was one of those guys who used to buy mortgages and turn them into various derivative instruments--but I applaud Occupy's efforts.  We, as a nation, must force corporate leaders to act responsibly and penalize them for reckless behavior that jeopardizes the livelihoods of employees and society in general.  That said, I believe Occupy's endgame is misplaced.  To say the bailout of the nation's largest banks was wrong (and that we should never do it again) is to say we must accept the consequence of a drastic loss of market liquidity and a world-wide economic collapse.  Sure, we could have punished bank CEOs by letting their institutions fail, but would that have been the right course of action for the tellers and other employees who would have lost their jobs, or the borrowers who needed loans?  Would that have been the best thing for an already weak economy that required improved market confidence to operate properly?  

Second, I don't see how charging bank CEOs with crimes will lead to anything good.  I suspect any such effort will cost a lot of money and only demonstrate how poorly judgment had been exercised.  And as far as I know there are no laws prohibiting stupidity.  In a way, shareholders and boards of directors share much of the blame.  They approved our current system whereby a CEO is paid handsomely for taking idiotic risks that happen to work out but won't claw back compensation for decisions that backfire.  In a way, the real problem we face is accounting related.  We need to ensure that when a CEO is paid millions of dollars, the company is clean of hidden liabilities that can come back to haunt it.  In other words, CEOs should only receive significant performance bonuses after the results of their gambling are fully manifest and liabilities associated with risk taking are eliminated.  It would also help if, as is the case for many European companies, boards of directors included employee representatives.  These actions would result in more responsible behavior.  
If CEOs want to take huge risks that have the potential of destroying capital, let's tell them to use their own money.

October 10, 2011

Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Where would Jesus be on the issues of today?

Crime—While Moses would want a tough-on-crimes policy that expanded our current use of capital punishment to cover homosexuals and adulterers, Jesus would want a gentler version of justice based upon forgiveness.

Defense Spending—While Moses would want a strong armed force to be used against our enemies, Jesus would ask us to be peacemakers and refrain from violence by turning the other cheek.  He would have us understand that all people—even those whom our first inclination is to hate—are our neighbors and worthy of our love.

Economic Policy—While Moses would support a system that enriched a chosen few through theft and murder (think of the taking of the Promised Land) not to mention legal chicanery (see the reference to Corban in the gospels), Jesus would ask us to make personal sacrifices in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and minister to the sick.

Regulation—While Moses would see arcane regulation as essential to keeping the peace (remember the 613 traditionally defined statutes in Leviticus) Jesus would want a standard of behavior that simply led us to: 1) love God, and 2) love our neighbors.

October 2, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

Moral people aren’t conflicted by choices between good and evil.  In a sense, they’ve already made such decisions in advance and know what to do without a second thought.  They realize, however, that life sometimes demands they select the lesser of two evils, or one good over another.  Moral people are tortured, for example, when forced to choose between a personally fulfilling career and more time with family. 

Standing at such a crossroad, many people ask: What would Jesus do?

The implications of the question, however, are seldom considered.  Let’s be honest, what Jesus did is emulated by only the rarest of us.  He forsook the world at an age when most people are seeking material wealth and taught His gospel of love without consideration for “purse or scrip.”  In this way He practiced what He preached, living true to His admonition to neither reap nor sow and to give freely to the poor.  He overruled the Mosaic notion of justice by telling His followers to forgive unconditionally and “judge not,” then He supported the view by reproving those who would punish an adulteress according to the demands of the law.  Jesus understood that justice has little to do with punishment for crimes, but that it refers to doing what is just, which is another way to describe doing what is right.  In that way, He despised the kind of legal wrangling that remunerates lawyers handsomely, but ignores the Golden Rule.  Jesus was also a peacemaker, who would be puzzled today by the violent metaphors used in hymns sung in His honor.  Would the Savior—who told Peter to put down his sword—condone our references to “Christian soldiers, marching as to war”?  Rather, I’m sure He’s horrified by the violent acts committed in His name. 

What would Jesus do? 

Something quite unlike the actions of His mainstream followers.