Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Informal experiment: RCC priests much, much smarter than magisterium
John Hooper, Comment is Free on the Guardian (UK) website, courtesy of Madpriest
[Editor: I bet the same is true of laypeople.]

Everyone knows Roman Catholics often don't follow the guidance of their popes - just look at the birth rates in southern Europe. You might, though, expect that their priests at least would heed the Vatican's teaching.

Yet a report in the current edition of the Italian news magazine L'espresso shows just how far this is from the truth. Reporters posing as troubled believers sought advice on a range of issues, and were given counsel that was in many cases at odds with - if not diametrically opposed to - the church's official teaching.

Several points struck me as I read L'espresso's article. [Ed: link to article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/pope/story/0,,2002187,00.html]

One was the priests' acceptance of sex outside marriage as a fact of life. There is absolutely no sign in the magazine's long article that any of them expressed shock or disapproval at being told of the reporters' affairs with unmarried partners.

In one case, a journalist even posed as a man in his forties who had fallen for a 16-year-old girl and had sexual relations with her. As he himself commented in his section of the report, the friar in Palermo to whom he pretended to unburden his heart seemed quite unfazed by the physical side of things. He was far more interested in ascertaining whether the relationship was based on real love and told the reporter that "even if it is a negative thing, it could bring positive results".

Another confessor was warier, but for practical, rather than moral, reasons. He too accepted it could be true love, but warned the difference in their ages would soon create problems and advised the man that he would do well to "let this green apple ripen".

Which brings me to the second point: the sheer tolerant good sense of most of the priests consulted. The image of the Roman Catholic church is given day in, month out, is inevitably the one implied by the unbending orthodoxy of Papal pronouncements. But there is another, less certain and more engaging one, and it shines through L'espresso's article.

I was particularly struck by the account of a reporter who passed himself off as someone who had married a Muslim woman. She had been against their child being baptised and he had given in for the sake of a quiet life.

"Am I a bad Christian?" he asked the priest.

"No", came the reply. "I am in agreement with you on everything. Let me give you and your wife some advice: leave your son to choose for himself. Don't push him towards either of your religions. When he is 18, he'll find his own way."

The reporter feigned astonishment. Was the priest recommending total freedom?

You bet he was.

"Let him go to the mosque [and] the church. Let him go where he wants. You [the Christian man and his Muslim wife] must live in harmony."

And the third point that struck me? Well, it's more of question really: how did this institution - which has so, so many good and intelligent people in its ranks - come to be so hopelessly distanced in its teachings from the lives of the rest of us?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fidelity Investments refuses to engage with Sudan divestment campaign
Marc Gunther, Fortune

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- As institutional investors learned that Chinese oil companies are helping to finance genocide in Sudan, many took action.

Harvard University led the way, divesting its stock in PetroChina (Charts) in 2005, and selling off Sinopec (Charts) a year later. Yale, Stanford and dozens of other university endowments followed. California's legislature approved a divestment plan last fall; so have at least five other states. Barclay's Global and Northern Trust are marketing Sudan-free investment funds.

Now the divestment campaign is targeting Fidelity, the nation's biggest mutual fund company.

The connection between Fidelity and the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan is not all that hard to draw, says Eric Cohen, a retired high-tech executive and a campaign organizer.

"It's not that Fidelity is killing people. They're not," Cohen says. "But Fidelity is the biggest investor in PetroChina. PetroChina is one of the largest companies operating in Sudan. They're pumping tons of oil. And that's generating massive amounts of revenue for the government of Sudan."

The Khartoum government has been condemned by the United States, the U.N. and most everybody else who has paid attention to the long-running crisis in Darfur, where an estimated 400,000 people have died.

How has Fidelity responded to calls for divestment? With form letters and prepared statements.

"We believe the resolution of complex social and political issues must be left to the appropriate authorities of the world that have the responsibility, and capability, to address important matters of this type," the company says. "And we would sincerely hope that they would do so wisely on behalf of all of the citizens of the globe."

How touching.

Now, in fairness to Fidelity, divestment is not a step that should be taken casually. Often, a more effective course of action is to hold onto the stock in a company whose practices need reform, and join with other shareholders to seek changes. The last successful divestment campaign targeted businesses operating in South Africa in the 1980s, under the apartheid system.

China's appetite for African oil grows
Harvard decided to divest from the Chinese oil companies after forming a committee of faculty, alumni and students to study the issue. They examined a series of complex issues - the genocide itself, the importance of oil to the Sudanese government, the relationship between PetroChina, which operates inside China, and its parent company, the China National Petroleum Company, which is wholly-owned by the Chinese government.

Afterwards, the Harvard Corporation concluded: "Although Harvard maintains strong presumption against the divestment of stock ...we believe that the case for divestment in this instance is persuasive."

It's likely the decision, which got a lot of press at the time, didn't escape the notice of Edward C. "Ned" Johnson 3d, chairman of the board of trustees of privately-held Fidelity. Fidelity's based in Boston, just across the Charles River from Harvard, from which Johnson graduated back in 1954. Fidelity owns about 2 percent of the shares outstanding in PetroChina, worth about $492 million, the company's latest filings say.

In any case, when Eric Cohen and two colleagues with the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, all of them Fidelity investors, wrote to Johnson about the issue last fall, they got a form letter back. They wrote to the company four more times and, finally, out of sheer frustration built a Web site at http://fidelityoutofsudan.googlepages.com/ . They went public on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27.

Their initial goal is to get 400,000 people - one for each of the people who have died in Darfur - to contact Fidelity. It's worth noting that Fidelity also manages the 401-k programs for some of America's biggest companies, including Microsoft and Time Warner (parent of Fortune and CNNMoney.com). So anyone at those companies who holds Fidelity mutual funds could well have money in PetroChina and Sinopec.

"Americans do not want to be investing in companies that are allowing themselves, like PetroChina, to be supporting genocide," Cohen said. At minimum, he would like Fidelity, as a major holder, to publicly urge the Chinese to stop supporting the Sudanese government. "If they started using their muscle, instead of being the bad guys, they could be the good guys."

The Sudan divestment campaign has scored some victories. Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company, pulled out of Sudan in 2003, and Siemens (Charts), the German industrial firm, agreed to leave the country later this year.

Fidelity won't be the last target of the campaigners. As of Sept. 30, other investors in PetroChina and Sinopec included Merrill Lynch (Charts), Citigroup (Charts) and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (Charts).

[Editor: US mutual fund investors almost always refuse to support shareholder proposals regarding environmental and social measures, saying that these decisions are best left up to the company. Companies usually recommend shareholders vote against such proposals.

Companies generally don't change without pressure. There is growing evidence that Americans want their mutual fund owners to support shareholder resolutions asking companies to address global warming, for example. Most mutual funds are thus denying shareholders their voice in the company. It's an interlocking set of interests that keep us from addressing problems that large corporations sometimes cause.

Christians often ask what Jesus would do? That cannot always be answered, because not every situation in Biblical-era Palestine parallels the twenty-first century. However, it is suggested that money changers and merchants at the Temple in Jerusalem especially exploited the poor, who could not bring sacrifices and had to purchase them at exorbitant rates. The Pharisees overlooked this. Jesus is said to have constructed a whip made of cords, and ran amok among the money changers.]

Mohandas Gandhi, assasinated Jan 30, 1948
Icon by Robert Lentz

"The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians." -- Mohandas Gandhi

"He began to discard the symbols of white Western superiority. He gave up all Western clothes; he refused to eat Western foods. He rejected the Western lifestyle. He stopped aping the oppresor in order to bring the oppressed a new appreciation of themselves. He made brownness a holy color."

--Joan Chittister, Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania

"A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back -- but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you." — Marian Wright Edelman
Global warming: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to release an authoritative report
CTV.ca news staff: http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070129/warming_report_070129/20070130?hub=SciTech

["I have made up my mind that global warming is bullshit regardless of what data is presented to me." - an anonymous person on a forum I used to frequent]

Scientists and government officials are finishing a much-awaited report expected to say that climate change is real, serious and that human influence on it is undeniable.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the report on Friday at a news conference in Paris, although a simultaneous one will be held in Ottawa.

"The climate's changing and it's going to change some more no matter what we do -- particularly if we keep consuming so many fossil fuels," Michael McCracken, the Climate Institute's chief scientist, said Monday in Washington.

"They say 'think globally, act locally', so we're hoping that it will convince people ... that climate change is real and that we have a responsibility for much of it, and that we really do have to make changes in how we live," Kenneth Denman told reporters in Paris.

He's co-author of the report and a senior scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis.

Scientists have been tightlipped about the contents of the report. However, they say it is both more specific and more sweeping than the organization's previous efforts.

A final review of the draft began on Monday. IPCC officials will issue a policy-maker's summary of the full report after they finish days of secret word-by-word editing.

Rajendra Pachauri, director-general of the Tata Energy Research Institute, chairs the IPCC. He said in Paris that the report would make "significant advances" over the last one issued in 2001.

The new report will also address gaps in the past assessment and contribute new knowledge about climate change, he said.

The report draws on research by 2,500 scientists, including skeptics and industry researchers, from more than 130 countries.

Rising seas?

Some scientists say that within a century, rising sea levels could swallow most of Prince Edward Island and threaten cities like Halifax and Vancouver. However, others say that's an unlikely scenario.

Early drafts of the document forecast that by 2100 the sea level will rise between 12.7 and nearly 58.5 centimetres.

Many top scientists reject those figures. A study published in the peer-review journal Science this month predicted an increase of nearly 51 to 140 centimetres by 2100.

Other climate experts, including NASA's James Hansen, predict even bigger sea level increases.

Some critics worry that the IPCC scientists did not take into account the recent melt-off of big ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

The melting ice sheets have surprised some scientists, who don't know how to predict the effects in their computer models.

Their forecasts considered only how much the sea level would rise because of melting glaciers -- which are different from ice sheets -- and the physical expansion of water as it warms.

"The whole question of how much melting will take place in Greenland and Antarctica is difficult to put numbers exactly on," Gordon McBean, a climate change scientist in London, Ont.

While some fear this will mean the world's coastlines will be flooded earlier than thought, others believe the ice melt is temporary.

The debate matters to policy makers because without accurate estimates, they won't know how to plan coastal development.

This contentious debate is expected to dominate discussions in Paris.

A German scientist said documents such as this one tend to underestimate risk.

The prediction that the IPCC is considering is "obviously not the full story because ice sheet decay is something we cannot model right now, but we know it's happening," Stefan Rahmstorf told The Associated Press.

Rahmstorf, a physics and oceanography professor at Potsdam University in Germany, says, "In a way, it is one of the strengths of the IPCC to be very conservative and cautious and not overstate any climate change risk."

The report must be unanimously approved by 154 governments, including the United States and oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia.

This installment of the report will not address how global warming's impacts or how to tackle the problem. Those sections will come later this year.

However, the Australian newspaper The Age reported on Tuesday that towards the end of this century, global warming will cause food and water shortages that would affect hundreds of millions of people.

Countries in Africa, for example, or like Bangladesh would be most affected because they would be the least able to cope with more coastal damage and drought, according to an early draft the newspaper obtained.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cushioning the wage hike for small business
Jeffrey Gangemi, Businessweek
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jan2007/sb20070125_421537.htm?chan=smallbiz_smallbiz+index+page_today%27s+top+stories

[Editor: I'd rather they passed a clean bill. But if we have to write in tax incentives for small businesses to get it passed, then that's fine with me.

If any legislators try to attach cuts for big business, or extate tax repeals, or anything similar, I'll be calling for pianos to fall on their heads.

It's important to remember: In my opinion, the minimum wage should be raised. But that is only the beginning.]

On a 54-43 vote in the Senate on Jan. 24, Democrats lost an effort to advance a House-passed bill that would lift the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour without any accompanying tax cut (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/10/07, "More Than the Minimum Wage"). The federal minimum wage has stood at $5.15 since 1997.

The new take on the proposed legislation, led by Republicans, would provide $8.3 billion in tax cuts for businesses over the next 10 years and is designed to be coupled with the $2.10 increase in the federal minimum wage that would be put in place in three 60-cent increments over 26 months.

But because a minimum-wage increase will hit some small businesses hard, particularly retail and manufacturing companies, advocacy groups and economists say that the tax incentives may not make up for the burden and that alleviating poverty would be better served by beefing up the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Difficult Equation
The EITC is a refundable tax credit that reduces or eliminates the taxes that low-income working people pay and also frequently operates as a wage subsidy for low-income workers. Enacted in 1975, it was originally approved to offset the burden of Social Security taxes and to provide an incentive to work.

"Trying to figure out how to match the tax cut with people affected is going to be tricky. I don't think you will be able to do it very well," says William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, a powerful Washington (D.C.) small-business advocacy group. "There's no evidence that government wage and price settings is beneficial—ever," he says.

By bundling the tax incentives with the minimum-wage increase, lawmakers are "trying through various means to maximize the number of winners and minimize number of losers," says Steve Mangum, professor of management and human resources, a labor economist, and senior associate dean at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. "When it comes to fighting poverty, the EITC is by and large a more finely tuned weapon—it's like a rifle vs. the shotgun," says Mangum, who recommends a blend of increasing the EITC and minimum wage.

Cement Ceiling?
Minimum-wage increases indirectly affect employment rates, argue some labor economists. Instead of immediately causing greater unemployment, for every 10% increase in the minimum wage, there's a 1% "disemployment" that happens. Employers might not hire as many people, or they might eventually boost their troubled bottom line by sacrificing some of their labor costs, the labor economists argue.

The thinking goes that even if the tax credits reach the right people, it might not improve the disemployment problems caused by the minimum wage increase, thereby making it harder for the unskilled to find jobs. "When you push the bottom up, it's going to go up through the wage structure. If I'm looking at labor, I'm looking at the value each new person will bring in. I won't necessarily associate the hiring decisions with the tax credit," says Dunkelberg.

Though the details of the Senate version of the minimum-wage bill with the added small-business tax benefits aren't final, they would also include a provision to extend the Work Opportunity Tax Credit for five years.

Other Incentives
The credit, which has existed since 1996, is available to employers who hire disadvantaged workers, including disabled veterans, qualified food-stamp recipients, and ex-felons hired within a year of release from prison or the date of their conviction.

Other proposed tax incentives include an extension of favorable expensing provisions for small businesses that would allow restaurant owners and retailers to more quickly deduct the costs of remodeling leased buildings (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/23/07, "Your Waiter Today Will Be a Computer").

It's unclear how long the process of amending the Senate bill could push back the final vote that will ultimately increase minimum wage. But small-business owners who employ the estimated 10 million to 13 million workers earning minimum wage or below will be watching intently.
UN Secretary General: 07 is a "critical year"
People's Daily Online, China

[Editor: My church back home, a pretty evangelical Methodist church, has no plans to support the MDGs or advocate to the Methodist Church in Singapore. Their excuse is that they already donate more than .7% of their budget to charity works in developing countries. This is very commendable; I've already said that developed-world churches should have developing-world partners. But, the MDGs aren't about charity. They're about development.

Methodists are supposed to have a strong social conscience, and I don't know why my church back home is sitting on their asses. Pastor Edmund De Souza, you damn well better read this.]

The United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon said 2007 is a critical year for the world body's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at reducing poverty when he spoke Monday in Addis Ababa at the opening of the two-day summit of the African Union (AU).

"If we are to make the target date of 2015, we have to see concerted action in 2007 -- the mid-point in the work to reach the MDGs," Ban said when addressing the opening ceremony of the 8th AU Summit of heads of state.

Ban, who assumed his post as UN chief earlier this month, pledged to convene in the coming months a working group on Africa and the MDGs, a coalition of the willing bringing together key African stakeholders, as well as international organizations and donors.

"We will aim to meet by March, to formulate an action plan supporting practical initiatives for accelerating progress in 2007 and 2008," Ban said.

"We will work to ensure the plan is ready in time for the Group of Eight summit in June," he added.

The AU summit, held in the pan-African body's headquarters in Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, is expected to focus on science, technology and scientific research for development, and climate change in Africa.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Minimum wage hike: pluses and minuses
Jeff Cox, CNN money
http://money.cnn.com/2007/01/26/news/economy/economy_minimumwage/index.htm?section=money_latest

[Editor: I support the minimum wage raise, but there are costs. We need the full picture, which is why I'm posting this.]

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Supporters of increasing the federal minimum wage contend it will offer significant changes to the lives of millions of working-class Americans.

Opponents insist the measure will cost the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide only marginal help to a relatively small group of wage earners.

The numbers suggest the answer lies somewhere in between.

Increases in the minimum wage sometimes have been followed by dramatic spikes in the nation's unemployment rate, as was the case in the early 1980s, as well as lulls or even decreases in unemployment, as happened in the late 1990s.

Contrary to its more recent stagnation, the minimum wage increased almost annually in the 1960s and 1970s, hitting an inflation-adjusted high of $1.60 ($9.27 in 2007 dollars) in 1968 and staying around that level through the following decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the 1970s, seasonally adjusted unemployment varied wildly, from 3.9 percent in January 1970 to 8.1 percent in 1975 and then back down to 5.9 percent in 1979.

The wage grew to $3.35 an hour in 1981, but would not budge from there until 1990.

Following the 1981 increase, national unemployment hit its highest rate since the Depression. The minimum wage held steady throughout the soaring unemployment rates of the early 1980s, including the 10.4 percent posted in January 1983.

The 1990s opened with two more minimum-wage increases, and unemployment zoomed.

But before Bill Clinton stepped down as president, the minimum wage would see two more increases, landing at the current $5.15 in 1997, when unemployment dipped to 4.7 percent. The jobless rate would drop to a low of 3.9 percent by the time Clinton left office three years later.

The numbers as recorded by the BLS leave many analysts at odds over the cause-and-effect relationship of what happens to the economy when the government increases the minimum wage.

An economic, and political, battle
The opposing sides continue to slug it out as the Senate considers passage of House legislation that will raise the federally mandated wage to $7.25 an hour, from the $5.15 point where it has stood since 1997.

With 29 states plus the District of Columbia already mandating pay for most full-time workers above the current federal standard, some experts in fact see the overall national impact as minimal at best, either for those who will benefit directly or the businesses that will have to pay the higher wages.

Most unions favor increasing the minimum wage. Some labor leaders see gains that would come also to those who earn slightly above the minimum wage, who can argue that their pay should increase proportionately.

But economists don't generally forecast a major impact on any sector.

"Whatever the effect is, it's not very large," said David Gleicher, a labor economics expert at Adelphi University. "First of all, minimum wage workers are a very small percentage of the whole labor force. ... It's almost impossible for it to have a major effect."

Fewer than 2 percent of all men and about 3.6 percent of women paid hourly make the minimum wage, according to BLS data.

Primarily, repercussions from raising the minimum wage occur among younger workers, according to Gleicher. Many of those teens and college-age workers belong in a class Gleicher called "target earners" who have a certain amount of money they wish to make, such as for college expenses or a car payment.

Once they reach their target, the incentive to work decreases, creating the possibility that a higher minimum wage could lead to somewhat lower productivity and employment.

Mostly, Gleicher joins others who view the minimum wage in its current context as far more a political issue than an economic one.

"It's a symbolic issue. It's a way for the Democrats to say 'we're going to do things for our base,'" Gleicher said.

In Senate, minimum wage, execs' pay in play
Clearly, the minimum wage matters to some people, though the numbers tend to support the point of view that its constituency is primarily those under the age of 25.

According to the BLS, roughly half the workers earning the minimum wage or less are under 25, and half that number is in the 16-19 age group. Of the total workforce, just 2 percent of those over 25 are minimum-wage earners.

As a proportion of population, minorities would benefit more from the increase. Minimum wage earners also tend more to be part-time workers with high school educations or less who work in restaurants and other locales in the leisure and hospitality industry.

The latter statistic is one reason the National Restaurant Association has become one of the most ardent opponents of the minimum wage legislation. Association leaders have criticized the House bill both for the increase in the wage and for not including tax help for the small businesses that must pay the higher wage.

The association plans an intense lobbying effort to get safeguards included in the Senate version.

"Although we're very concerned with the potential impact of a wage hike, we are hopeful there will be some consideration to try to make it jobs-neutral," said Brendan Flanagan, vice president of federal relations for the restaurant trade group. "What happened in the past, at least as far as the experience in our industry, is there have been jobs lost."

The association says that the last wage hike cost restaurants 146,000 jobs and forced the postponement of 106,000 planned hires. Labor Statistics data bear out those claims, showing that the industry added 280,400 net jobs in 1995, a number that fell to 124,200 by 1998.

The drama behind the data
Still, some supporters of raising the minimum remain dismissive of such economic data and believe there are compelling reasons beyond politics that mandate increasing the federal benchmark.

"I think it is a political issue and it's a moral issue," said Heather Bouchet, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington. "There certainly is no evidence, academic-quality evidence, that shows raising the minimum wage has a negative effect on employment."

According to Bouchet, the proposed increase will raise the salary of the average minimum wage earner by $1,500 a year, allowing him or her to purchase 11 months of home heating utilities or nine months of groceries.

But James Sherk, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank also in Washington, said that in some respects society is ill-served by increasing the minimum wage, as it provides incentive for at-risk high schoolers to abandon their education and enter the workforce.

Donald R. Deere, a research fellow at Texas A&M and senior consultant at Welch Consulting in Bryan, Texas who has written and researched extensively on the issue, also sees negative economic impact.

Deere's research has led him to conclude that teenage unemployment has consistently increased when the minimum wage goes up. He further asserts that increasing the minimum wage actually harms lower wage earners by shrinking the amount of jobs available to them.

In the 1990 and 1991 increases, for instance, unemployment for teenagers and poorly educated adults climbed from 3 to 11 percent, Deere wrote in a policy paper prepared for the National Center for Policy Analysis.

"It is not that there are too many low-wage jobs, but that there are not enough jobs for low-wage workers, and minimum wages make things worse," Deere said.

Inside Bush's health plan
The AFL-CIO has entered the fray as well, even though most of its members are not directly affected by minimum wage changes. Bill Samuel, director of the union's department of legislation, acknowledged that workers who earn, say, $10 an hour might argue that they deserve a proportionate increase as the minimum wage rises.

But he said that's not the prinicipal reason the union conglomerate backs the minimum wage increase.

"We think the minimum wage needs to be raised to a living wage ... which would be well over $8," he said. "What's really the appropriate level of the living wage for people working 40 hours a week?"
Corporate political donations make millions for shareholders
Univ. of MI news service
http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=3111

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—While research has long shown that firms benefit from having political connections, a new study shows that their shareholders are better off, too—to the tune of $154 million per year per firm.

Stocks of companies that contribute to a large number of congressional candidates—regardless of the total dollar amount of the donations—perform better than stocks of firms that give to fewer candidates, says Huseyin Gulen, a visiting professor of finance at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

"Remarkably, there is a positive and significant relationship between contributions and future profitability," said Gulen, who also is a professor at Virginia Tech University. "Although we can't say exactly how contributions increase firms' bottom lines, they appear to, and in a very significant manner."

Gulen and colleagues Michael Cooper of the University of Utah and Alexei Ovtchinnikov of Virginia Tech used data from the Federal Election Commission to create a comprehensive database on publicly traded firms' political action committee contributions to U.S. congressional campaigns since 1979. About 820,000 contributions by 1,930 firms were made during that time.

The average firm that makes a political donation, they say, contributes to 73 candidates in any five-year period, 53 of whom go on to win their elections. By supporting another 96 candidates, a company can increase its annual stock returns by as much as 6 percent, the study shows.

"This increase in returns is remarkable, given that the explicit contribution cost to support an extra 96 candidates is extremely small relative to the increase in firm wealth," Gulen said.

According to the study, firms, on average, contribute a total of nearly $65,000 to 56 candidates during any two-year election cycle. Republicans receive, on average, about $43,000 from each contributing firm, while Democrats get nearly $31,000. Corporate contributions comprise 12 percent of total campaign financing for House Republican candidates, 10 percent for House Democrats, 9 percent for Senate Republicans and 5 percent for Senate Democrats.

"Corporate contributions represent only a small fraction of candidates' total campaign financing and, therefore, are unlikely to buy candidates' attention," Gulen said. "However, if firms are making large contributions relative to other contributors, they are much more likely to be noticed even though these contributions represent only a small percentage of total money raised."

The researchers say that the "contribution effect" is stronger for companies that have longer relationships with candidates, support more candidates from their home state and support more powerful candidates, as measured by politician seniority and committee rankings.

Moreover, they found a greater effect for industries with a smaller number of firms, more heavily concentrated sales and a higher percentage of unionized employees.

In all, only a small number of total companies make political contributions and most of those firms are very large.

"To successfully compete in the market for political favors, it may require more than simply donating the legal limit of $10,000 in hard-money contributions—those directed to specific candidates," Gulen said. "That is, it may require soft money-like contributions or other forms of non-money favors, which are not publicly disclosed and which only larger firms can afford.

"Thus, a potential way to capture the benefits to firms from participating in the political process is to keep track of the total number of candidates that a firm supports, with the idea that, much like a venture capital portfolio of many startups, a few of the supported candidates will 'pay off big' and result in increases in firm shareholder wealth."



Contact: Bernie DeGroat
Obama's liberal pastor has a huge following
Manya Brachear, Columbus Dispatch, courtesy of Titus 1:9

[Editor: This is particularly interesting because Rev. Wright is African-American, and his congregation seems to be largely so. The United Church of Christ is not, to my knowledge, a largely Black denomination.]

CHICAGO — When he took over Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. was a maverick pastor with a wardrobe of dashikis and a militant message. Six years later, he planted a "Free South Africa" sign on the lawn of his church and asked other local religious leaders to follow his lead.

None did.

The sign stayed until the end of apartheid, long enough to catch the eye of a young Barack Obama, who visited the church in 1985 as a community activist. Obama, not a churchgoer at the time, found himself returning to the sanctuary of Trinity United. In Wright he found both a spiritual mentor and a role model.

Wright, 65, is a straight-talking pragmatist who arrived in Chicago as an outsider and became an institution. He has built a congregation of 8,500, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey and hip-hop artist Common, by offering an alternative to socially conservative black churches.

Obama also came to the city as a young unknown. Emerging from relative obscurity with his win in the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat, he found a growing audience by preaching the politics of social justice and common ground. He has encouraged Democrats to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of Americans.

Obama says that rather than advising him on strategy, Wright helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated.

"What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice," Obama said. "He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics."

The rebellious son of a Baptist minister, Wright was hired by Trinity United when he could find no Baptist church to take him. The congregation on 95 th Street, then numbering just 87, had recently adopted the motto "Unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian." They did not mind his fiery red Afro and blackpower agenda.

Wright has continued on an independent path, often questioning the common sense of Scripture, objecting to mandatory prayer in schools and clashing with clergy who preach prosperity theology, a popular notion among black pastors that God will bestow wealth and success on believers.

In the process, he built a spiritual empire. The modest brown brick building that housed the church in the 1970s was converted into a day-care center when Trinity opened its new sanctuary in 1995 at 400 W. 95 th St. Members run more than 80 ministries, including an outreach to gay and lesbian singles, also unusual for a black church.

Wright now wears three-piece suits on occasion, but he still dons a dashiki most times he preaches. Obama has said he is particularly inspired by Wright’s ability to draw followers from all walks of life — celebrities and welfare recipients, Ph.D.s and GEDs.

Wright again bucked convention by announcing plans to retire in May 2008 and tapping the Rev. Otis Moss III as his successor. Many black pastors do not surrender their pulpits even when they become too feeble to serve, said the Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School who met Wright in the 1980s.

Wright’s willingness to "surrender leadership" demonstrates a humility that sets him apart, Hopkins said.

Wright said the decision was not hard. "The church is built around the personality of Jesus, not Jeremiah Wright," he said.

"Many of us who had grown up in very traditional denominations were all transformed by the civil-rights movement and were beginning to question how our faith intersected with our actions," said longtime Trinity member Iva Carruthers, who is helping Wright launch a church grammar school.

Wright sought to build on the black theology of liberation introduced in 1968 by the Rev. James Cone of New York, by emphasizing Africa’s contribution to Christianity rather than that of mainstream white theologians.

"To show there is an independent form of thinking there about religion that stands on its own, that’s really more life-giving than what you get from Europe," Cone said. "Black people who come from that approach have a very healthy understanding of who they are."

The success of Trinity did not come without sacrifice.

"Growing up in the church was kind of bittersweet," said Wright’s daughter Jeri, who developed a church publication into the nationally distributed Trumpet magazine. "That’s when his daily life consisted of his service to God’s people. I’ve always loved going to church and going to worship. At the same time I felt my church took my father from me."

She credits her mother, Janet, for helping her understand.

"It was my mother that taught us to separate the man from the ministry," his daughter said. "No matter what happened in our lives, she never wanted us to have any ill feelings toward the church or toward our father. ‘Yes, he is your father, but when he steps behind that sacred desk he is God’s messenger, and never confuse the two.’ "

It was a harder lesson to live. Janet and Jeremiah Wright eventually divorced, which the pastor describes as his greatest failure. He has since remarried and had another daughter, Jamila, and with his wife, Ramah, he sees a counselor regularly.

Wright has spoken in Columbus several times. In 2004, he was the keynote speaker at the city’s Martin Luther King Day breakfast.

In his 1993 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts in vivid detail his first meeting with Wright in 1985. The pastor warned the community activist that getting involved with Trinity might turn off other black clergy because of the church’s radical reputation.

When Obama sought his own church community, he felt increasingly at home at Trinity. Before leaving for Harvard Law School in 1988, he responded to one of Wright’s altar calls and declared a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Later he would base his 2004 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention on a Wright sermon called "Audacity to Hope," also the inspiration for Obama’s second memoir, The Audacity of Hope.

Last fall, Obama approached Wright to broach the possibility of running for president. Wright cautioned Obama not to let politics change him, but he also encouraged Obama, win or lose.

Wright said, "Picture some kid who lives in Hyde Park or over in Ida B. Wells Homes or Washington Gardens, who will see Barack and say, ‘My God, I can one day be that.’ The amount of hope that it will give to kids who society has written off just in terms of them changing their concept of what is possible is going to be immeasurable for generations to come."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reproductive rights in Nicaragua: A conversation with Friends of the Casa Materna


(Picture stolen from the BBC)

In 2003, Rosa, a 9-year old girl became pregnant. Pregnancies by the very young are risky for the mother and the fetus. In addition, this girl was raped.

Nicaragua is a very conservative, very Catholic country. At the time, therapeutic abortions were allowed. The definition was vague, but abortions to save the mother's life and in the case of a severely deformed fetus were OK. This case, though, ingited serious debate. Some government ministers wanted to allow her to have an abortion, and some opposed it. In the end, she did have an abortion. However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated her parents and the doctors who performed the abortion. The picture on the upper left is a demonstration in support of Rosa and her family.

On October 26, 2006, Nicaragua's legislature voted to ban all abortions. Some said it was a vote-grabbing ploy ahead of the elections. Women who terminate their pregnancies and doctors who perform the abortions could face 6 to 30 years in prison. Daniel Ortega, the then and current president, backed the bill. Ortega is with the Sandinistas, who once had a tradition of feminism and liberalism. Some say he, and his challengers in the election, couldn't afford to alienate the church, because they would lose. And by the way, the American media doesn't like to talk about this, but the United States waged a proxy war against the Sandinistas as part of our campaign against socialism in Latin America. This is probably why they left their socialist roots.

Still, tens of thousands of women receive illegal abortions despite the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Illegal abortions can be very risky - they often have to be performed outside a hospital by poorly trained doctors. Indeed, Latin America in general has been moving to prohibit abortions or strengthen the restrictions against it.

A couple of Episcopal churches in town work with the Casa Materna. This post draws on a presentation they gave at my church. From their website:
"The Casa Materna was founded in October, 1991 through aid provided by Spain's Instituto de la Mujer (Women's Institute) and donations from individuals and small groups from the United States. The first baby was born on the night of October 31st and since that date over 10,000 mothers have been served in the Casa and hundreds of others helped through education and outreach in their home communities. Service is provided round the clock seven days a week and is coordinated with the services of the Ministry of Health. The Casa now serves close to 950 mothers per year and houses from 20-35 mothers at a time. Average length of stay is eleven days."

Some Christians show, by their actions, that they want to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The Roman Catholic Church prohibits abortion, and artificial birth control, including condoms. It allows the rhythm method. However, not all women have regular menstrual cycles in the first place. Malnourishment, which is a big problem in rural Latin America, can cause temporary amenorrhea. In perfect conditions, the rhythm method is iffy. In real life, in Latin America, you might as well not bother. And as a result, having ten children is not abnormal. Having that many pregnancies can be unsafe, too.

The birth control pill is a sin, according to the RCC. Another option for family planning is tubal ligation. As explained by our presenter, with birth control, you're sinning every day. With tubal ligation, it's one big sin, and then you're done for the rest of your life. Tubal ligation is major surgery, but at present, while the costs have gone up, it is still affordable, and foreign organizations contribute to subsidize the cost for poor women. A less painful solution would be vastectomy. However, I am told that machismo is still very prevalent in Latin America. To put it plainly, men don't want to have their nuts cut. Face it, I would hesitate to get a vastectomy. Unfortunately, now that they've banned abortion, banning tubal ligations might be next.

In other countries, men are the main problem. Most sex educators are women, and men often aren't inclined to listen to women teaching them to use condoms. Women do not have the power necessary to negotiate condom use. If they bring it up, they may be accused of cheating or having an STD, when in fact it is the men who sleep around. In Nicaragua at least, our presenters didn't feel that men were the main problem. They felt that the Roman Catholic Church was the main problem.

"Violación," the sign that the girl in the photo is holding, needs no translation. Restrictions on reproductive freedom are a violation of women's bodies, minds, and souls. Therefore, they are a violation of human rights. We need to ensure access to birth control and access to comprehensive sex education. We need to end sexual violence. We also need to end poverty. One of my lecturers told me that a male sex educator she worked with explained it thus. In his village in Africa, there were no playgrounds, no libraries, no toys, no schools. Sex was the only thing they had. And people want that skin-to-skin contact, and face it, condoms do decrease sensation. But if we want to limit the number of abortions, banning them is the worst thing we can possibly do.

Meanwhile, I do encourage people to donate to the work of the Casa Materna, at the bottom link. In the West, our dollars have a multiplier effect when they go to projects in developing countries. Every church should have a partner in the developing world, and this is one of my church's partners.


News articles:
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/03/23/world/main545560.shtml
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/27/AR2006112701577.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1932576,00.html

Read about and donate to the Casa Materna here:
http://www.casamaterna.org/
Possible signs of change at Exxon Mobil
Was: Exxon Mobil becomes socially and environmentally responsible, CNN Money, Marc Gunther
[Editor: I'd take this with a grain of salt, although I am glad for possible signs of change.]


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- On issues ranging from global warming to corporate governance to gay rights, Exxon Mobil used to ignore detractors - or thumb its nose at them.

That's changed. The oil giant has been quietly reaching out to critics, most importantly around the issue of climate change.

How are institutions managing their resources? And how much information do they share? Fortune's Bethany McLean shares a new report. (Read the column.)
Exxon invited environmentalists, socially responsible mutual funds and religious investors to a two-day retreat in suburban Virginia late last year with company executives. It is participating in a project organized by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental think tank, that will design a government plan for mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases.

In its ubiquitous corporate advertising, the company is talking about what actions should be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, instead of questioning the science of climate change.

Supreme Court tackles global warming
That's a turnabout from the late 1990s and early 2000s when Exxon (Charts) led the opposition to the Kyoto Protocols and provided funding for think tanks that challenged mainstream science. In particular, Exxon infuriated greens by supporting the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an advocacy group that ran a series of unintentionally hilarious TV ads last year in which an announcer said, "Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life."

As it happens, Exxon stopped funding CEI in 2005, a decision that became public only recently. In a telephone interview, Ken Cohen, Exxon's vice president of public affairs, acknowledged that the company has made a conscious effort for several years to open up, in part because it felt misunderstood or unfairly maligned.

"We've quietly started meeting with leaders of various environmental groups as well as other NGOs that work on issues like transparency and human rights," Cohen said.

As for the company's position on climate change, Cohen said: "We should be putting ourselves on a path, as a society, to reduce emissions in ways that are cost-effective and sustainable."

Asked if that means that ExxonMobil now supports government regulation of greenhouse gases, either by imposing mandatory caps or taxes on fossil fuels, Cohen said that's the issue that business, government officials and NGOs now need to address. "There is a role for policy," he said. "The devil's in the details, and we want to be part of that discussion."

Longtime Exxon watchers aren't sure what to make of all this. Andrew Logan, an oil and gas analyst for Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors and environmentalists, said the company seems to have "moved from outright denial to what seems to be a more nuanced position" on climate change. "Given how large and how influential Exxon is, even small moves on their part can have a large impact," he said.

Janet Sawin, director of the energy and climate change program at the Worldwatch Institute, participated in an Exxon stakeholder dialogue last year: "My sense is that it's more about a tactical shift," she says. "They realize that they are losing in their attempt to confuse and obfuscate the science of climate change. They see the change in congressional leadership, and they want to be in there to influence the course of discussion."

Driving forces
Several forces appear to be driving the changes at Exxon. One is simply pressure: Exxon's image has taken a thumping. The company has been targeted for boycotts by groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Human Rights Campaign. Last fall, in a controversial move, two U.S. Senators, Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe, sent a letter to Exxon urging the company to stop funding groups that deny the science of climate change.

The company has also had difficulty communicating its social and environmental successes. Exxon's funding of CEI got a lot more attention than its support for a $225 million Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford, which is researching alternative energy and transportation fuels.

And while rival BP (Charts) became the darling of corporate responsibility types (despite shoddy environmental and safety practices) for promoting a world "Beyond Petroleum," Exxon got little credit for its operational skills - its nuts-and-bolts efforts to reduce oil spills, workplace injuries and energy usage, among other things.

Most important, probably, in explaining Exxon's culture shift is the broader shift in the political climate. The new Democratic Congress and influential Fortune 500 companies are calling for mandatory federal caps on greenhouse gases. Exxon can't afford to be seen simply as a naysayer.

Whether the changes at Exxon will extend to issues like gay rights or how the company's board operates is impossible to tell. Of the biggest 100 companies in the Fortune 500, Exxon is one of only two that do not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Cohen said Exxon does not discriminate "on any basis, period," including sexual orientation, and adding special categories detracts from that basic objective.

Shareholder activists, meanwhile, have urged reforms on Exxon's board. Among other things, they don't want the board to renominate former Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell as a director. After being forced out last year by Pfizer (Charts), McKinnell collected about $200 million in retirement, deferred compensation and pension benefits, making a "poster boy for pay-for-failure," in the words of one critic.

Project Exxon, an informal coalition of shareholder advocates, environmentalists, public pension funds and foundations, has again filed a set of shareholder resolutions with Exxon. The veteran shareholder advocate Robert A.G. Monks expressed hope that the company this year would engage in discussions with the group, something it refused to do under longtime CEO Lee Raymond. A combative figure, Raymond gave way to chief executive Rex Tillerson in 2005,

"The former CEO hated the annual meeting, couldn't wait to gavel it through," said Monks. "His successor is certainly more civilized."
More on Abbé Pierre

This is in reference to my previous post on this French advocate for the homeless: http://weiwentg.blogspot.com/2007/01/abbe-pierre-of-france-campaigner-for.html
The translation is by Richard Sipe, whose website deals with RC priests, celibacy, and sexuality.

Abbé Pierre, the fabled Rag Picker of Paris, is considered a living saint and a national treasure of France. And he speaks the truth. In a memoir he recently authored with Frédéric Lenoir he speaks clearly about the subjects all other priests, at least in the United States, avoid (or lie about) when they write about the priesthood—their personal reality.

He speaks with candor about his occasional sexual encounters with women when he was a young Franciscan priest. The experience made him unhappy, “because it made me feel untrue.” I have read a library of books extolling the priesthood and speaking of the joys of celibacy, none have ventured to talk candidly about the experience in personal terms. None have really told the truth. Everybody admires St. Augustine. Nobody imitates him…………(I am in the process of reviewing 10 current books on priesthood and celibacy, and will post them later.)

Pierre’s experience did teach him something about love and sex: “I understood that sexual desire, in order to be completely fulfilled, has to be expressed in a living relationship, tender and trustful. I had chosen a life that could not allow such a relationship. I could have only made a woman unhappy and I would find myself being divided between two irreconcilable choices of life.” (Chap. 5)

“Truth can only exist in simplicity, not duplicity. We [priests] have to reject any hypocrisy so omnipresent [in our church]. Sex is an extremely powerful vital force; it is possible for anyone to yield to sexual temptation. But it is completely different for a priest or religious to be sexually active. He can cause his victim decades of suffering.”

The Abbé is realistic as well as idealistic, an element so glaringly absent in current literature about priests and celibacy, but so demonstrable in the lives of celibate saints: “I know priests who have lived for many years in concubinage with a woman they love; they reach a degree of inner reconciliation. They continue to be good priests.”

Of course, the reality of good priests in stable and responsible sexual relationships (with women or men) raises questions, “crucial for the church that involve the marriage of priests and the ordination of married men.”

“As for me, if I had married or become involved in a love relationship (une relation affective particulière) I could never have accomplished what I have. My vocation required unlimited flexibility. But I am convinced that in the church there is need for both married priests and those who practice celibacy who can dedicate themselves totally to prayer and the service of others.” (Chap. 6)

Practical and prophetic this priest in his testimony confronts the question not only of homosexuality, but also of homosexual marriage and adoption. (Chap. 9)

Not surprisingly Abbé Pierre has nothing against the ordination of women to the priesthood. (Chap. 10) And in the following chapters he considers freely the possibility of a loving sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

This testimony of a “living saint” may delay his canonization by Rome, because he has committed the greatest crime—telling the truth about the priesthood and celibacy. Scandal. But his truth telling will not bring him the fate of Joan of Arc either. Canonized or not, the great hope is that his example—simple, eloquent, personal testimony—will inspire other priests who are writing about the priesthood and celibacy to risk honesty in their efforts to rehabilitate the image of priests.

It takes (saintly?) courage to speak the simple truth about sex and celibacy. This demonstrates that it is not impossible for a priest to do so.

{I am indebted to Maceij Bielawski of Verona for introducing me to this book and assistance in translating the passages}
http://www.richardsipe.com/Click_&_Learn/2006-12-11-AbbePierre.html

That having been said, Abbé Pierre was a Holocaust denier. Douglas Johnson highlights:
"n 1996 the Abbé Pierre found himself involved in a bitter controversy which had nothing to do with his work for the homeless. That April, the French writer Roger Garaudy, a former communist who had converted to Islam in 1982, announced that the Abbé agreed with his view that the Holocaust was a myth invented by the Americans and the Jews of Israel. There was consternation when the Abbé confirmed this. The only explanation that some could find was that the Abbé's sympathy for the Palestinians had influenced his judgment.

For the first time in his life, the Abbé found himself unpopular. He eventually rescinded his support for Garaudy, but as he had isolated himself in Italy and Switzerland, some confusion remained. Eventually, the Abbé returned to France, staying in various religious homes. He made few public appearances, and said very little. Public sympathy for him revived, but there were no longer any discussions about a possible canonisation."

His sympathy for the Palestinians is commendable, and I share it, but denying the Holocaust is inexcusable.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I may have found the person who started "It's a girl!"

As some of you may remember, especially if you're Anglican/Episcopalian, the Episcopal Church in the US elected its first female Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She's also the first female primate (chief bishop of a province, not mammal of the order that includes monkeys and humans) in the Anglican Communion. Many wore pink buttons stating that "It's a girl!!" to her investiture. I believe I may have found the person responsible for the phrase:

"Update 23-Jun-06: Apparently my "It's a girl" idea got widespread use. There were even buttons at the convention. You can see one here at the elf-bunker (blogger is failing to upload images this morning)."

http://westernseminarian.blogspot.com/2006/06/its-girl.html
Prayers for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, first US commisioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq

Lieutenant Watada, US Army, is due to stand trial on Feb 5. It is likely, I think, that he will be found guilty. I believe that as many as 8,000 GIs have gone AWOL rather than be deployed. Once you go AWOL, there is little legal recourse. One can become a conscientious objector and seek discharge. Fortunately, CO status is not limited to those who have religious objections in the US armed forces.

I believe, though, that you have to declare opposition to war in general, rather than just the Iraq war. This presents a problem for many - it is perfectly reasonable to believe in the just war theory, and that the Iraq war violates just war doctrine.

http://www.thankyoult.org/

Aaron Glantz, writing for Inter Public News, reported on Jan 9 07 that subpoenas in this case are being issued that could have negative reprecussions in privacy rights and press freedom:

In a case that could have repercussions for free speech and press freedom in the United States, the U.S. military has subpoenaed two peace activists and a journalist in its case against Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to be court-martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq.

"I'm alarmed," said Olympia-based activist Phan Nguyen, who moderated a Jun. 7th press conference that marked Lt. Watada's first public opposition to the Iraq war.

"When I was first contacted by the lead prosecutor I was questioned as to conversations I had had with Lt. Watada and how this press conference had come about," he said.

Nguyen told IPS that military prosecutors asked who organized the press conference as well as who produced the video statement from Lt. Watada that was played at the gathering.

"This starts leading into how activists go about their procedures in opposing the military," Nguyen said. "I don't believe the military should be questioning activists about how they protest military actions when we're just exercising our first amendment rights."

The military maintains Watada's public comments are at issue, and has charged him with both refusing to deploy and "conduct unbecoming of an officer."

The lieutenant does not dispute any of the statements prosecutors seek to use against him. His attorney says Watada continues to stand by his comments at that June press conference, which his supporters have posted, along with all of his other speeches, on the website thankyoult.org.

"It is my duty as a commissioned officer in the United States army to speak out against grave injustices," Watada said on Jun. 7. "My moral and legal obligation is to the constitution. Not to those who issue unlawful orders. I stand before you today because it is my job to serve and protect American soldiers and innocent Iraqis who have no voice. It is my conclusion that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong, but also a breach of American law."

At a pre-trial hearing last Thursday, the lead prosecutor, Capt. Daniel Kuecker, said Watada's statements are offensive to the military and must be looked at in the context in which they were made and the effects they could have, as well as the danger they present to the military's mission.

"The dividing line and what makes it more disgraceful is the fact that he made it to more than one person," Kuecker said at the court martial, according to the Army Times.

Military prosecutors also point to comments Watada made at the Veterans for Peace annual convention in Seattle last August.

In a "charge sheet" against the lieutenant, the military quotes Watada's comments at the gathering, calling them "disgraceful."

"Today, I speak with you about a radical idea," Watada told the gathering. "That to stop an illegal and unjust war, soldiers can choose to stop fighting it... If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols – if they stood up and threw their weapons down – no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, '...Against all enemies foreign and domestic', what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the constitution is an obligation, not a choice."

The military has also subpoenaed Seattle-area activist and doctor Gerri Haynes, who chaired the Veterans for Peace convention, and a free-lance journalist who interviewed Watada, Sarah Olson. Another journalist, Dahr Jamail, who filmed Watada's speech, has been placed on the prosecution witness list.

In an editorial Monday titled "Military Injustice," the Los Angeles Times strongly criticized the Pentagon's "pestering" of reporters in its prosecution – which the paper argues is justified on the grounds that Watada refused to deploy to Iraq.

"It's egregious enough when U.S. attorneys subpoena journalists, which is happening at an alarmingly increasing rate (illustrating the need for a national shield law). But there is something especially chilling about the U.S. military reaching beyond its traditional authority to compel a non-military U.S. citizen engaged in news-gathering to testify in a military court, simply to bolster a court-martial case. There is no security interest at stake, and no matter of national urgency," the paper said.

Unlike fellow activist Phan Nguyen, Dr. Haynes said she has no problem appearing at the lieutenant's court martial, which is scheduled for Feb. 5.

"I have been very clear about my support for Ehren Watada," she told IPS. "His speech is on tape and all over the internet. I'm not sure that my testimony is of great relevance, but I'll do anything I can to help support Ehren."

Gary Solis, a former military prosecutor who teaches at Georgetown's School of Law, told IPS he's surprised the military has decided to call peace activists to testify against Lt. Watada.

"I really don't know what they may be driving at," he said. "As a prosecutor, I would be very cautious about calling people who I knew would be unfriendly. There's a certain risk that's being run here."

The tactic could blow up in the prosecutors' faces if the activists are able to make an articulate case for Watada and against the war, Solis said, adding the military may find it difficult to compel civilians who resist a subpoena to appear in court.

"The UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) has no application to civilians so the military has no hammer with the UCMJ alone," he said. "They would have to find a civilian court federal hammer, which would involve getting a second subpoena from a district court."

The precise nature of the charges against Watada remains at issue. At the pre-trial hearing last week, military prosecutors sought to block Watada's attorneys from making a legal case against the Iraq war as part of his defense.

During the hearing, the military judge overseeing the case, Lt. Col. John Head, suggested that such arguments would go to Watada's motive for not deploying and therefore would not be admissible. However, he later said the Army had opened the door by charging the soldier for comments made during the June news conference moderated by Phan Nguyen.
Rev Brad Schmeling's trial wrapped up, verdict due in 15 days

Rev Schmeling's trial finished yesterday. It was a closed trial, with all participants sworn to secrecy until after the verdict is disseminated. Lutherans Concerned North America (http://www.lcna.org/news.shtm) reported on what facts they could observe - not much, basically. Brad has many supporters within the ELCA. Prayers for his safety, and for his vindication.
Outspoken Catholic Pastor Replaced; He Says It’s Retaliation
Laurie Goodstein of the Herald Tribune of Southwest Florida, found originally on Madpriest's blog

In his last Mass as pastor at the inner-city parish in Detroit where he had served for 23 years, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton told his parishioners that he was forced to step down as pastor because of his lobbying efforts on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, a stance that put him in opposition to his fellow bishops.

Last weekend, the archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Adam Maida, sent a letter to the parish, St. Leo, saying Bishop Gumbleton had to be removed because of church rules on retirement. But as Bishop Gumbleton, who turns 77 on Friday and had already retired last year as a bishop, told his parish last Sunday, there are many pastors even older than he who are allowed to continue serving.

“I’m sure it’s because of the openness with which I spoke out last January concerning victims of sex abuse in the church. So we’re all suffering the consequences of that, and yet, I don’t regret doing what I did because I still think it was the right thing to do,” he said, as the congregation rose and erupted in applause.

Bishop Gumbleton, though he never led a diocese, is known nationally in church circles as a liberal maverick. He co-founded the peace ministry Pax Christi and accompanied antiwar delegations to Haiti and Iraq. He broke ranks with church teaching by preaching in favor of acceptance of gay men and lesbians and the ordination of women.

Last January, he lobbied in favor of a bill in Ohio to extend the statute of limitations and allow victims of sexual abuse to sue the church many years after they were abused. He said he was speaking out because he had been abused by a priest as a teenage seminarian and knew how hard it was to speak publicly even decades later. Bishops in Ohio opposed the bill, which failed.

A spokesman for the archdiocese of Detroit, Ned McGrath, said Bishop Gumbleton’s removal from St. Leo Parish had nothing to do with his lobbying on sexual abuse or his political stands.

All bishops are required at age 75 to submit resignation letters to the pope, Mr. McGrath said, and the pope has the option to accept or reject the resignation. Bishop Gumbleton’s resignation was accepted last year, and, Mr. McGrath said, “it was with the understanding that he would give up any pastoral office.”

Cardinal Maida announced in his letter to parishioners that he had appointed a new pastor, the Rev. Gerard Battersby.

In his brief remarks at Mass on Sunday, Bishop Gumbleton told the parish that after he turned 75, he had sent a separate resignation letter to Cardinal Maida asking to stay on as pastor at St. Leo’s on a year-by-year basis. He said he was surprised by his sudden replacement.

“I did not choose to leave St. Leo’s,” he said. “It’s something that was forced upon me.”

Three canon lawyers interviewed on Thursday said there was nothing in canon law that would prohibit an archbishop from permitting a retired auxiliary bishop from serving as a pastor after 75.

Bishop Gumbleton, who has already moved out of his room behind the church and plans to move into an apartment in Detroit, did not respond to an interview request. A video of his remarks during Mass was taken by a parishioner and posted on the Web site of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic weekly newspaper that publishes a column by Bishop Gumbleton.

Mary M. Black, a parishioner at St. Leo’s, said: “Almost universally, everyone in the parish is hurt and angry and upset and bewildered.”

Ms. Black said: “He talks after Mass with people, and he is there ahead of Mass to say the rosary for anybody who has problems. And we all have his personal phone number. You do not have to go through a secretary. He was a pastor in the truest sense of the word.”

[Editor: There will always be someone out there who hears God's call and responds, no matter how screwed up the institution is. It is people like +Gumbleton who will reform the institution. It will take a long time, but God has been around for a long time. And besides, there are other churches.]

Thursday, January 25, 2007

CEOs of some of the largest polluting companies push for carbon limits
Lisa Scherzer at Smartmoney

THE U.S. CLIMATE Action Partnership sounds like an improbable alliance. Ten industry giants — with business operations spanning the utilities, manufacturing, chemicals and financial-services sectors — joined forces with four environmental groups to pressure the Bush administration to set mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The coalition is aiming to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 10% to 30% over the next 15 years.

When blue-chip firms like DuPont (DD: 49.83, -0.45, -0.9%) Duke Energy (DUK: 18.94, +0.19, +1.0%), Caterpillar (CAT: 59.73, 0.00, 0.0%), Alcoa (AA: 31.47, -0.33, -1.0%) and PG&E (PCG: 46.15, -0.53, -1.1%), some of which are the world's biggest carbon producers, petition the government to enforce emissions controls, a notable shift seems to have occurred. The coalition is a sure sign the climate-change debate has become less of a debate and more of a consensus, says Peter Fusaro, president of Global Change Associates, an energy advisory firm in New York.

In addition to a nationwide limit on carbon dioxide emissions, the group is calling for a market-based emissions trading program. Under a "cap and trade" system, the government gives or sells permits to businesses, allowing them certain levels of emissions. Companies that emit less than allowed, or that build clean-burning plants, get credits they can then sell to companies that need them to meet the standard because they are emitting more than their designated amounts.

The absence of public policy on this issue thus far is prompting many industry leaders to call on Congress for decisive action, Fusaro says. They recognize that regulation is inevitable and want a hand in shaping the framework of any legislation that may come to pass. "There's a school of thought that says there could be even more stringent standards with the next president, so it's better to do this now," he says.

More importantly, companies are realizing the potential boon of new markets in clean-energy technologies. As of now, the U.S. has a voluntary emissions-trading system, through the Chicago Climate Exchange. But what's currently an immature industry, says Fusaro, has the potential to become a multibillion-dollar commodity market. Fusaro, a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, puts the market at $750 billion in 20 years.

Bush, whose administration has rejected emissions caps in the past, mentioned nothing about a cap-and-trade system in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. His proposal called for a 20% reduction in the use of gasoline over the next decade by ramping up production of renewable fuels — a plan not ambitious enough, according to Fusaro and other critics. That may mean it's up to Congress to get serious about passing carbon-limiting legislation. "This is the beginning of a sea change," Fusaro says. "I think Congress now has figured out there is bipartisanship, there has been no action, and folks are concerned about this issue."

SmartMoney.com: Can you explain the background of the cap-and-trade system.

Peter Fusaro: The U.S. invented the cap-and-trade system. There's been a misconception that it came from the Kyoto accord, when actually we invented it. We've had successful acid rain and nitrous oxide [cap-and-trade] programs. What the industry is doing here is using the same tools we've had before. What you're doing with this system is giving industry some time to meet more stringent environmental standards. That's the game plan. There's no quick fix on reducing emissions. By setting up cap and trade, it's mandatory. Bush has only set up voluntary standards, and no one cares about that. What we really need is the federal government to step in.

SM: Why have these groups come together now to pressure the government to do something about global warming?

Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute
"There's been a customer acceptance that I think is universal. People want to buy green energy, green architecture, green cars. It's shifted, and very rapidly."
Peter Fusaro
President
Global Change Associates


PF: Industry is at a turning point. There's too much pent-up demand for investment. There's too much regulatory uncertainty and not knowing what the rules are. We have efforts in California and New York, but that's at the state level. Industry has to join hands with environmentalists and propose mandatory limits. We have over 950 coal-fired plants in the U.S. The U.S. burns more coal than anywhere else in the world. That's what produces a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. Realistically, we need to shift into cleaner technology. Some of the players in this coalition sell that technology; there's nothing wrong with that. The onus falls on electric utilities; they need to start investing in plants and equipment, which they haven't done. There are no rules. There's a vacuum of public policy. We need mandatory standards. That's why industry is proposing this.

With cap and trade, you ratchet down emissions over time. That's worked well with the nitrous oxide programs.... What the market gets out of this is trading, liquidity and speculators. What you're really getting is regulatory certainty because there is a penalty for not complying with the law. The lead time for these standards is around four to seven years; so it's going to take time for engineers to build new power stations.

SM: Democrats are no doubt in favor of some kind of federal limit on carbon dioxide emissions. But do you think there's really enough support in both parties to get legislation like this passed?

PF: Both sides of Congress see these market-based solutions work, and you can't just sit there with no regulation. There are six bills [proposing emissions caps] making their way through Congress. The question is, do we have 60 votes? And do we do it now or do it later? There's a school of thought that says there could be even more stringent standards with the next president, so it's better to do this now. If you look at the science of climate change, we're running out of time. In the financial markets, there's a lot of interest in green technologies. There's a conundrum because there's plenty of capital out there to do this. There's a handful of venture capital funds pushing green technology. There's almost too much money.

Here are some statistics: The energy industry spends $4 billion a year on research and development. The auto makers spend $30 billion. So it's underinvested in terms of new technology. Now there's movement from hedge funds and private-equity funds investing in new technology — solar technology, battery storage. They're bringing solutions being bought by energy industry.

SM: How would the companies involved in the coalition benefit from a cap-and-trade system?

PF: General Electric (GE: 36.36, -0.28, -0.8%) wins. They have gasification technology, wind-power technology. They realize there's much uplift in the market. They really are a green company. The others, electric utilities, see that there's an opportunity to green up their portfolio, some in clean coal, some in nuclear power, which obviously does not emit carbon. There's a beginning of a nuclear renaissance, which will probably take 10 years to build out. If you're Duke, you have nuclear power in your portfolio. So they get a different uplift from this. Alcoa probably benefits that way too. I think these companies realize they have a major business opportunity. We haven't gotten anywhere because there's no regulatory certainty. A lot new investment opportunity is being created.

SM: Such as?

PF: Financial markets move quickly. When the EU moved into emissions trading two years ago, first, there was uplift in equity valuations of companies. Second, banks and hedge funds started trading emissions credits. Morgan Stanley (MS: 82.68, -1.97, -2.3%) is the largest emissions trader in the U.S. Financial markets will move very quickly into commoditizing the emissions allowances. Right now we don't have any; we have voluntary markets.

SM: What impact would carbon caps have on consumers and the economy?

PF: There would be a small amount of flow-through. Consumers wouldn't even see it. The latest Energy Information Administration report by the Department of Energy is saying that economic losses under one cap-and-trade proposal would be 0.1% by 2030. New technologies will create more jobs in engineering, financial services and energy services. There will be a net gain.... There are over 600 green-power programs in the U.S., where consumers could buy green energy [from their local utility], which costs more. I think there was a tipping point last year when green became good. There's been a customer acceptance that I think is universal. People want to buy green energy, green architecture, green cars. It's shifted, and very rapidly.

My focus is on investors — what are the outcomes? What kind of investment opportunity is there? Now there's a handful of green hedge funds that invest in equities and commodities. There are about 12 of those. This is an immature market. There are some green ETFs [which focus on alternative-energy companies]. There are only a handful of multibillion-dollar companies. Most are microcaps. It's high risk. We don't know who will be the big winners. This is the beginning of a sea change. I think Congress now has figured out there is bipartisanship, there has been no action, and folks are concerned about this issue.

SM: As expected in his State of the Union address this week, Bush called for an increase in production of ethanol and other alternative fuels, and an increase in fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. Where does this leave the Climate Action Partnership's call for a mandatory cap-and-trade system, which Bush has rejected before?

PF: Bush ducked cap and trade as a climate change solution. The reality is that he has left it to this session of Congress to craft cap-and-trade legislation. This will be done through the public policy hearing process this year. It is problematic whether Bush will sign the legislation.... He most probably will later this year, but his administration is not proposing any greenhouse gas solutions. So the coalition of business, environmental groups and bipartisan Congressional support will be the way forward this year. Realistically, it will take several years to implement any greenhouse gas legislation as regulations also take time to craft and implement.

[Editor: Praise the Lord!]

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Incarnational experiences can fail: Stephen Bates takes Archbishop of Canterbury to task for speaking out against UK Sexual Orientation Regulations and church exemptions

[Editor: I previously lambasted Bishop Michael Nazir Ali of the Church of England (http://weiwentg.blogspot.com/2006/12/bishop-nazir-ali-shame-on-you-senior.html) for basically threatening to close CoE charities rather than serve gay people. The UK government is introducing sexual orientation as a category protected against discrimination; it seems there may be some exceptions for religious groups, but the Roman Catholic church in the UK has protested and threatened to close its adoption agencies.

Now, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu have come out in support of the RCC, saying that conscience should not be subject to the law of the state. I understand that BBC has an interview with ++Sentamu, where he squirms trying to justify conscience in not serving homosexuals vs conscience in not serving Blacks, but it's in Real media format, and my mac can't play it.

And here, Stephen Bates takes on ++Rowan Williams. Our friend the Archbishop apparently lived next to a gay Anglican priest, with a partner, who had adopted a very difficult child. Their kids played together. And still, the Archbishop can do this...

One other Anglican/Episcopalian blogger mentioned a CoE bishop who initially strongly opposed moves to ordain women ... until he actually spoke to women who were seeking and denied ordination. He changed his mind, and is now supporting consecrating them as bishops. The blogger, whose name I can't remember, described it as an incarnational experience. God became human in Jesus to experience what we experienced, which is a central element in Christian theology. Similarly, this particular bishop experienced, and was changed.

I lambasted Peter Akinola for wilfully avoiding an incarnational experience with Louie Crew, calling for him to (not literally, mind you) have a millstone hung around his neck and thrown into the ocean. Well, ++Rowan didn't flee, but it seems the incarnational experience didn't really take.]


Now that the archbishops of the Church of England have stepped into the government's gay adoptions row, it's worth adding church politics to the politics of Westminster and Whitehall.

I suspect two different, internal, forces are at work in the two denominations here - which isn't to say that the Catholic and Anglican hierarchies are not quite sincere.

In the Catholics' case, the push for a hard line on the adoption issue has largely come from Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham, who is generally responsible for child policy issues in the church. Vincent is almost ostentatiously ambitious to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who is due to offer his resignation on reaching the age of 75 this summer. Furthermore, Nichols is fresh from spearheading the church's campaign before Christmas, which forced ministers to back down on their admittedly half-baked scheme on admissions to church schools.

Murphy-O'Connor has not been in good health, but the expectation is that he will be asked to stay on for a year or so. Even so, he won't want to be outflanked by his ambitious colleague. Taking a hard line on gay people won't do Vinnie any harm with the Vatican when the time comes to name a successor, particularly as one of the other candidates is Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the worldwide Dominican order, who has been noticeably more understanding and conciliatory in his attitudes towards homosexuals and has preached at services for them. Radcliffe is much the more intellectually and socially assured candidate - some might say holier - while Nichols is altogether spikier and less emollient.

On the Anglican side, the archbishops leave in a few days' time for Dar es Salaam and the next meeting of the world's Anglican primates, where the communion's on-going and long-lasting row over homosexuality is once again high on the agenda. Some of the developing world's Anglican archbishops are suspicious of Archbishops Williams and Sentamu and censorious of the Church of England for accommodating gay people at all.

In this, they are egged on by conservative evangelical factions in both England and the US, anxious to assert the authority of their view of biblical orthodoxy and reshape the church in their image. Williams in particular is under pressure for his supposed liberalism - though he has taken considerable steps to conciliate the conservatives. A secular gay row in Britain is the last thing he needs now and the hard line taken in his letter to the government last night was the very least that would have been demanded of him.

Even so, it is uncomfortable for the archbishops, as anyone who heard Sentamu equivocating on the Today programme, as he tried to explain why being in conscience unwelcoming to gays was entirely different from in conscience discriminating against black people, will have appreciated.

It is particularly difficult for Dr Williams because he actually knows very well the case of a gay couple who have brought up a youngster with severe behavioural difficulties. Not only that, but one of the couple, Martin Reynolds, is an ordained Anglican priest.

The lad was placed with him and his partner at the age of 4 when Barnardo's could not find any other foster care for him and the couple have provided him with a stable and loving household ever since - for 15 years - despite his disruptiveness and other difficulties. Dr Williams knows this because, when he was archbishop of Wales, he lived next door: the boy played with the Williams children. The archbishop understands very well that gay couples can successfully and charitably foster children, which makes his letter verge on the hypocritical.

Martin recently rang a Catholic agency to inquire about fostering, posing as an atheist and was told he would be quite acceptable. When he rang again as homosexual he was, of course, told to get lost.

But in a further sense this row and others currently affecting church-state relations illustrate a wider problem for the religious authorities. One of the most dispiriting things about the way in which current religious disputes are framed is the assumption by some religious folk of victim status.

Christians in Britain are not an oppressed minority and it is dishonest to suggest they are: people have full rights to worship as they wish, they have special, unelected, representation in the legislature and particular attention is paid to their views - sometimes more than is warranted. What society does say is that they have no special claim to be affronted, or to impose their views on people who do not share them, as if they automatically have some special moral virtue.

Accompanying all these demonstrations of lofty moral virtue from a certain sort of Christian has been a hectoring, bullying tone, as exemplified by the Catholic Church's moral blackmail to close down their adoption agencies if they are required to comply with the sexual orientation regulations. Just who will suffer from this?

It was pathetic and ridiculous for the cardinal effectively to tell the government: "Exclude us, or the kid gets it," particularly one might add - and I speak as a Catholic - with the church's spotty record for putting vulnerable children in harm's way with predatory paedophile priests over the years. And it was lamentable for the Anglican archbishops to support them in their blackmail.

If the churches wonder why their message is less and less appealing to the outside world - to those they hope to attract - they might ponder the bullying and sanctimonious face they so often present to the world. It's not attractive; it won't win them converts - and, ultimately, it won't win the argument.

[Editor: I should add, it was my actually meeting and talking to gay people that changed my mind about homosexuality, and caused me to leave my old church and join the Episcopal Church.

PS, perhaps the UK government should consider allowing Catholic agencies to not serve same-sex couples, but mandate that they refer such couples to other agencies? That might be enough fudge to satisfy everyone.

PPS, it is my understanding that the aforementioned RCC and other religious adoption agencies are taking public funds. It is also my understanding that some Christians are whining about their beliefs not being respected, and about being persecuted for Christianity. If they were running private adoption agencies that would be one thing, but these guys are taking public funds and serving the public.]

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

In Praise of Wal-Mart
Kiplinger's Magazine

[Editor: I neither shop at not own shares in Wal-Mart. However, not all of the criticisms of Wal-Mart are reasonable, and it is critical to get a picture of the whole story. This article isn't without flaws, but no article is.]

Wal-Mart is certainly a company that merits superlatives. It is the world's largest retailer, with more than 4,000 stores in the United States and nearly 2,300 abroad. Annual sales exceed $330 billion, a figure larger than the gross domestic product of all but 20 nations. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States and the second-largest employer overall, behind only the federal government. Its 1.3 million domestic workers would more than fill all of the stadiums in baseball's major leagues, and the number of Wal-Mart shoppers over two weeks exceeds the nation's population.

But few companies arouse as much animosity as Wal-Mart. Critics contend that the company treats its workers badly, denies them benefits and buys its products from sweatshops in developing countries. Criticism of the company mounted after author Barbara Ehrenreich went underground to "expose" Wal-Mart in her 2001 best seller, "Nickel and Dimed." On top of this, some urban scholars blame big-box retailers in general, and Wal-Mart in particular, for putting mom-and-pop stores out of business, hastening the decline of downtowns and depersonalizing the shopping experience.

Attacks on Wal-Mart almost surely contribute to its share price being lower than it ought to be. (In fact, Kiplinger thinks Wal-Mart's reinvention of itself is a great investment opportunity. We also consider it one of the best stocks to own for 2007.)

A different picture
But when I examine the facts surrounding Wal-Mart, a very different -- and far more favorable -- picture of the company emerges. For millions of people, Wal-Mart is a lifesaver that provides what they want at prices they can afford. I'm not saying that Wal-Mart is without fault. No large employer is. But if jobs at Wal-Mart are as bad as critics assert, why is it that 25,000 people applied last January for 325 job openings at the company's new store in the Chicago area?

This huge rush to get jobs at Wal-Mart is not because there are no jobs elsewhere. The current unemployment rate of 4.4% is well below recent levels and has been lower in only four of the past 35 years. Applicants want these jobs because Wal-Mart pays more than $10 an hour, on average, which is considerably higher than the U.S. and state minimum-wage rates.
Although Wal-Mart workers have lacked benefits in the past, this is changing. The company now offers as many as 18 health-care plans for as little as $11 a month in many locations. But critics would like to force Wal-Mart to pay even higher wages and offer even more benefits. Recently, the Chicago City Council voted to hold Wal-Mart and other large store operators to higher wage standards than other employers in the city.

Fortunately, Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the Wal-Mart bill. This type of legislation sends the wrong message to prospective employers -- namely, "We will penalize you for being a large, efficiently run company that offers consumers the lowest prices." Would Chicago prefer less-efficient companies with higher prices and fewer jobs? That would have been the outcome had the bill become law.

Impact on prices
Studies have shown that Wal-Mart's prices have a huge impact on consumers' purchasing power. Global Insight, an international research firm, found that Wal-Mart's growth between 1985 and 2004 resulted in food-at-home prices that were 9.1% lower and overall prices (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) that were 3.1% lower than they would otherwise have been.

These findings are stunning. Jerry Hausman and Ephraim Leibtag published a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2004 titled "CPI Bias From Supercenters: Does the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) Know That Wal-Mart Exists?" In it they showed that the BLS' inflation measure for food bought for home use is too high by about 0.32 to 0.42 percentage point per year because the agency improperly accounts for Wal-Mart's low prices, a mistake that leads to an upward bias in the overall inflation rate of about 15% per year.

In other words, if the government is reporting annual inflation of 3.45%, the real figure is closer to 3%. No other company makes such a favorable impact on such an important statistic. (Last year, Wal-Mart rolled out a headline-making generic-drug program.)

On the international front, those who criticize Wal-Mart for encouraging "sweatshops" in the developing world also fail to see the big picture. John Tierney, a columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote that Wal-Mart is as deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize as are Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, which he founded. Yunus and Grameen won the award in 2006 for their role in granting small loans to help poor villagers in Bangladesh start their own businesses. But, Tierney notes, Wal-Mart is responsible for the creation of far more jobs in developing nations.

Michael Strong, the head of a nonprofit group that promotes entrepreneurship abroad, says factories in developing countries that sell goods to U.S. retailers do a lot more to lift people out of poverty than virtually any governmental or private program, including the work of Grameen Bank.

Dynamic economy
Finally, those who fault large discounters for the decline of individual shopkeepers are ignoring trends that have been around for more than a half-century. Similar accusations were made after World War II, when the growth of supermarkets such as A&P contributed to the demise of locally owned butcher shops, vegetable stands and dry-goods stores. Yet today, the supermarket is a symbol of the American way of life, and specialty stores that cater to particular tastes, such as ethnic and gourmet foods, are still thriving.

Let me say that my family and I have not stepped into a Wal-Mart store for years. When one opened in Philadelphia a decade ago, we found the checkout lines far too long and personal service lacking. We prefer to shop at more "upscale" discount stores, such as Target.

But I vividly remember the people who shopped at Wal-Mart. Many were from Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods, and they shopped as if every penny counted. When I see groups such as Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, lead the battle against Wal-Mart by claiming to fight for "the disadvantaged classes," a thought comes to mind: Have any of their members ever spoken to any of the millions of Wal-Mart shoppers for whom the chain's "everyday low prices" are critical for making ends meet?

[Editor:
1) Wal-Mart has created many jobs in developing countries - but does it pay reasonable wages? Does it uphold environmental and labor standards? I suspect it's especially guilty of failing to uphold labor standards; they opposed their Chinese workers' unionization efforts even though Chinese unions are just lackeys of the government anyway. There is some evidence they're changing on the environmental standards, though. Also, Grameen allows people to start their own small businesses. Wal-Mart and other large retailers provide jobs with little autonomy, where you can't "steal time" from the company. Which one is more consonant with the mythical American dream?

2) Ehrenreich's book, referenced in the article, showed that at the wages Wal-Mart paid while she was working there, it could have been impossible to afford health care after paying for food, rent, transport, and other necessities. Wal-Mart may pay more than minimum wage, which is a good deal for a college student supported by family. But those wages are a joke for someone trying to raise a family. And for too many Americans, that's all they can aspire to.

3) The article says nothing about the fact that Wal-Mart pushes a lot of smaller businesses out, because they can't compete with Wal-Mart's prices. That having been said, the landscape of American business is changing, and it may be that small businesses are unsustainable. It may be a situation similar to that of agriculture, where government is subsidizing an unsustainable industry, impairing the ability of farmers in developing countries to compete, driving prices for Americans up, and violating WTO rules. We may be culturally disposed to want to keep small businesses and small farmers around, but that solution may not be just.

Then again, there is the problem that big business has far more power to lobby for tax breaks than small business, which is part of what inhibits the competitiveness of small business.]