Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The real work of Christ begins after Christmas

I just sent Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California a note saying Happy Holidays. As a bit of a running joke, I've been trying to wish all my Christian clergy friends Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. After all, the godless secularists have won the war on Christmas.

Really, though, the furor over Happy Holidays detracts from the real message of Christmas.

Jesus came into a time of great injustice. Human rights were regularly violated in occupied Palestine.

The Jews of the time were expecting a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire. It seems God doesn't work that way. God's power, revealed in Jesus, was the ultimate revelation of soft power. Jesus changed the hearts and minds of His followers - Jews, Gentiles - even the Romans. Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, as the Psalmist says - some trust in military might or great wealth. Some think that God works through military might and great wealth. God may yet come again in a flash of light and a blast of trumpets, but the work God is doing in the world is far more subtle, and God needs our own hands to do it.

Unfortunately, human beings screwed it up and Christianity became an imperial religion. One could just roll one's eyes and shrug if not for the real human cost.

As we go forth into this new year, let us be ever vigilant in serving the poor - the ones to whom Jesus ministered first. Let us in fact be willing to listen to the poor, to find out their real needs and conduct advocacy alongside them. In doing so we help ourselves stay true to the essence of Christianity.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays - alcohol guide

Happy Holidays, folks! If you drink, please do so responsibly!

I once had a Baptist friend who indicated obliquely that her church's stance on alcohol - Baptists don't believe in it - played some role in her drinking rather heavily in college. As readers know, alcohol is also generally unavailable to Americans under 21. Some speculate that this helps set up a culture of binge drinking - alcohol is generally unavailable, so kids binge when they get any access to it, e.g. at parties.

The original intent of raising the drinking age was to reduce alcohol-induced accidents. Proponents still believe there's no evidence that decreasing the drinking age reduces binge drinking and that the evidence that a higher drinking age reduces accidents is solid.

I haven't assessed either body of evidence yet. However, I frown upon religions that prohibit alcohol. As Ben Franklin allegedly said, beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. One can make similar comments about wine or liquor. I don't believe that complete abstention in today's social context is necessary unless one has alcoholism. However, it goes without saying that one cannot drink in a manner that endangers others.

So, for the holidays, CNN Money offers a smart buyer's guide to spirits. I imagine most of the listed brands are available in most metropolitan areas worldwide.

I don't typically drink spirits. However, my priest, a Southerner, recommends Knob Creek bourbon, which is made by a small brewer. It's a little more expensive.

As for beer, Beer Advocate is a guide to US and Canadian beer. The good stuff, not Bud. Two of my favorite brewers are Bells Beer, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Unibroue, based in Quebec. Here's to Quebecois separatism! Bells is thought to have started a bit of a microbrewing craze in Michigan. Their beer is sold in a number of neighboring states. Rumors have it that the owner is hard to get along with, and Bells certainly doesn't exhibit at the biennial Michigan Beerfest.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic was built by professionals

A commentator on one of the finance websites I frequent lambasted Wall Street, saying that Noah's Ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic by the pros. Wall Street has had many spectacular failures the last two years.

The established Church needs to take notice. Among many other things, Christmas is about a babe in a manger, of apparently questionable birth, come to shake up established religion. The representatives of that religion had failed to serve the true spiritual needs of the people they served. In fact, they had come to collaborate with the Roman Empire.

The established churches of our time are failing to serve both Christians and non-Christians. The Evangelicals have said that the mainline churches are becoming stale. Their liturgy is boring. They have failed to evangelize.

Frankly, though, what the Evangelicals offer is worse: unthinking adherence to flawed doctrine, empty pop music whose message can be boiled down to "Jesus is my boyfriend", homophobia, warmongering, cultural imperialism, lack of concern for the greater world. The mainline churches are also guilty of some of these things.

Bishop John Spong of the Episcopal Church in the US contends that Christianity must change or die. In his view, Christianity must move away from literalism and superstition, or it will fail to serve people. I disagree. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians show us that a) people need to believe in high myth and b) some people are just fucking crazy.

It is true, though, that Christianity must change or humanity will die. It is only now that Evangelicals are realizing the climate change will destroy the ability of millions of humans to live on this planet. It is only now that they are realizing that genocide is a crime against God and humankind. It is only now that they are realizing that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have the same rights as ... oh, wait. The Evangelical conservatives are too late. Their efforts will probably be too little as well. They, like the mainline churches, need to shape up. Or die.

We progressive Christians have in many ways ceded the power of the Christian story to the interpretations of the fundamentalists. We have failed to show the world that we take the Bible seriously, not literally. We have failed to spread the faith. We have failed in vision, organization, teaching and marketing.

Going forward, progressive Christians need to engage with the established Church (meaning both mainline and Evangelical churches) and with the wider world. We need to articulate a non-exclusive theology that describes the mystery of God and is digestible and attractive to ordinary people. We need to articulate and execute a theology that upholds human rights because they are God's rights. If the Religious Right's message goes unchallenged, we all lose.

Many religious 'professionals' have failed in their duties. Pray that the 'amateurs' will step in. And Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is the UAW getting undeserved flack in the auto bailout debate?

Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer for CNN Money, details some of the requirements of the Bush administration’s bailout targeted at the UAW that he thinks are off the mark.
Competitive wages by 2010
The Administration seems to want to make the UAW get their total labor costs on par with the foreign automakers by 2010. First, that’s not much time. Second, as mentioned earlier, the domestic automakers have far higher costs related to retirees – getting total labor costs on par with the foreign companies will mean sharply slashing pay for current workers and/or reducing retiree benefits. The UAW already came quite far in creating trusts to take much of these liabilities off the hands of the auto companies – although the automakers haven’t been able to fully fund the VEBA (health care trust).
Competitive work rules
It’s commonly thought that domestic automakers’ plants are far less efficient than those of the foreign automakers, usually due to strict work rules. The Administration wants the UAW to make their rules comparable to the foreign automakers.
It was true as recently as 10 years ago that the unions had strict and sometimes nonsensical work rules. However, at present, the rules that remain mostly deal with legitimate safety concerns, such as only having union electricians work on electrical problems.
Ron Harbour, an auto manufacturing consultant and analyst, puts out an annual report that ranks auto factories by their efficiency. 9 of the 10 plants he thinks are most efficient are unionized domestic plants.
Eliminate the jobs bank
The legend we’ve heard about the jobs bank is that workers sit around collecting 80% of their pay if they’re laid off. The Administration wants the jobs bank eliminated.
The domestic automakers offer a sub-pay period, where they supplement the unemployment insurance that all workers are eligible for (unemployment insurance is funded through states’ payroll taxes). The foreign automakers don’t do this, but they actually offer similar benefits otherwise. Toyota has a “no layoff” policy, and offers their employees full wages while they are retrained or reassigned.
Additionally, because auto industry jobs are training-intensive, it’s in the industry’s interest to keep workers on through the bad times, or as factories are retooled. Without some way to support themselves, they would have to look for new jobs. As the economy improved and the automakers needed more work, they would have to recruit and train new employees, which is expensive. The auto industry is highly cyclical, which means there are lots of bad (and good) times – and if they didn’t have such programs, they would incur high costs training new hires.

While the UAW definitely needs to make major concessions, one has to ask about the motivation of the Republicans who tried to attach conditions to the failed bailout bill. One has to ask if the Republicans are deliberately trying to destroy organized labor.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Replace Rick the Warmonger with Rich Cizik

Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes about the forced departure of Rich Cizik from the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik has been prominent in getting the movement to reconsider its commitment (formerly nonexistent) to pressing global issues. Although he voted in favor of California's Proposition 8, he stated publicly that he was reconsidering his stance on homosexuality. No comments about how same sex marriage was like incest or pedophilia, but I support equal rights. Cizik should deliver the invocation, not Rick the Warmonger.

Rich Cizik has been a pioneer in the “new evangelical” movement and a real hero, especially to the next generation of young believers. Rich has helped lead the way to putting “creation care” and climate change on the mainstream agenda of the evangelical movement. His pilgrimage to a deep passion for the planet that God made for us has been, in his own language, a “conversion” and an “epiphany.” Because of that, he has become a powerful spokesperson for many in the Christian world who are having that same conversion.

The agenda of the evangelical world is deeper and wider because of Rich Cizik. In addition to the environment and climate change, Cizik has also led on the fundamental moral and biblical issues of global poverty and commitments like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), human trafficking, religious liberty, genocide in Darfur, and foreign policy issues like torture and even nuclear weapons. The NAE’s critically important statement, “For the Health of the Nation”, bears powerful witness to the wider agenda that is the shape of the new evangelical movement in America, and certainly around the world—especially for the next generation.

But Rich Cizik resigned this week, at the request of the NAE, because of things he said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross. The controversy of some of Rich’s statements, in particular his “shifting” feelings about gay civil unions, admitting that he voted for Barack Obama in the primaries, and implying that he did so in the general election, caused so much controversy in some quarters of the NAE’s constituency that the Executive Committee felt they had no choice but to suggest resignation, which Rich quickly but sadly accepted.

Rich Cizik still supports the Christian tradition of marriage between a man and a woman, which he reiterated after the interview, and that his strong pro-life commitments certainly included abortion, even though in the interview he said that pro-life commitments should include more than just abortion. He pointed out in the interview that younger evangelicals don’t have all the same views on gay and lesbian rights as their parents do, that more of them have friendships with gay people, and that more are sympathetic to their equal protection under the law and issues like civil unions. Cizik admitting that he identified with those shifts created the firestorm.

All of this is very sad for many reasons. Rich has served the NAE, the evangelical movement, the wider church, and the wider world in such a dynamic, creative, and courageous way for 28 years, and for that service to end over the words of an interview is sad indeed. Already, leaders from many faith traditions, including many national evangelical leaders, have expressed great dismay at the loss of Rich Cizik in such a key role. And the Religious Right is already using Cizik’s resignation to attempt to roll back the wider social justice and environmental agenda of the NAE. In a particularly bizarre statement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said:

This is the risk of walking through the green door of environmentalism and global warming — you risk being blinded by the green light and losing your sense of direction.

But NAE President Leith Anderson made clear that the NAE had no intention of retreating from the commitments of “For the Health of the Nation” and, while he defended the need for the resignation of Rich Cizik, said that it “saddened him” and was “personally painful.”

I personally trust Leith Anderson’s and the NAE Executive Committee’s commitment to the wider evangelical agenda beyond just abortion and gay marriage, but also feel deeply saddened by these events. And I encourage the NAE’s leadership to stay on the path they have chosen and resist the efforts of those who would again seek to narrow the evangelical agenda in unbiblical ways and make it again subservient to a conservative political agenda.

As for Rich Cizik, he will continue to be a leader in the new faith coalition that is emerging now, and that will replace the Religious Right, without becoming a Religious Left. Pioneers sometimes get into trouble and even pay a price for their explorations into new territories. But in the new moral center that is now visible, Rich’s prophetic voice and leadership will continue to be heard and felt.

In fact, a lot of Episcopalians should have problems with Rick the Warmonger

Rick Warren has publicly supported Archbishops Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi, of the Anglican provinces of Nigeria and Uganda respectively, in their efforts to fracture the Anglican Communion. Both are notorious homophobes. Orombi has made several outrageous statements about gay people detailed in Episcopal Cafe's article. Warren publicly supported Orombi's decision to boycott the Lambeth Conference.

It is very disappointing that it's still OK to associate with folks who compare gay people to pedophiles, as Rick did in an interview with Beliefnet.

Oh , I do. For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman. And the reason I supported Proposition 8, is really a free speech issue. Because first the court overrode the will of the people, but second there were all kinds of threats that if that did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn't think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech. We should have freedom of speech, ok? And you should be able to have freedom of speech to make your position and I should be able to have freedom of speech to make my position, and can't we do this in a civil way.

Most people know I have many gay friends. I've eaten dinner in gay homes. No church has probably done more for people with AIDS than Saddleback Church. Kay and I have given millions of dollars out of Purpose Driven Life helping people who got AIDS through gay relationships. So they can't accuse me of homophobia. I just don't believe in the redefinition of marriage.

Jeremiah Wright's harsh words stem from a desire to see his country follow God's law. Rick the Warmonger's words show he is in denial about his homophobia (plus he's a warmonger). It would be better to pick Jerry to do the invocation.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury: Gordon Brown's recover plan like addict returning to drug

Rowan Williams, the beleaguered Archbishop of Canterbury, asks an important question about the UK's fiscal stimulus plans, which involve reducing the VAT and borrowing money to inject into the economy.

Asked about the Prime Minister's "fiscal stimulus" package, which includes cutting VAT and increasing public borrowing, the Archbishop told Radio 4's Today programme: "I worry about that because it seems a little bit like the addict returning to the drug.

"When the Bible uses the word 'repentance', it doesn't just mean beating your breast, it means getting a new perspective, and that is perhaps what we are shrinking away from.

"What I'm worried about is anything that pushes us straight back into the kind of spiral we were in before.

"It is about what is sustainable in the long term and if this is going to drive us back into the same spin, I do not think that is going to help us."

He said people should not "spend to save the economy", but instead spend for "human reasons" such as providing for their own needs.

Dr Williams admitted it was "suicidally silly" of him to give advice on financial issues but insisted: "I want to ask where these moral questions are in the economic discourse."

Asked if the looming recession could have positive consequences, he replied: "It's a sort of reality check which is always good for us, a reminder that would some people have been calling 'fairy gold' is just that.

From an economic perspective, we want people to be buying things. That keeps money circulating through the economy, which generates more money - it isn't a zero sum game.

From a Christian perspective, we have to ask why we're buying so much useless shit, especially if we're going into debt to do so. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

I'm not willing to give up all I have and go become a hermit. But one does hope we will rediscover the virtue of simplicity in these hard economic times.

Following up on Rick the Warmonger

It looks like Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington agrees with my assessment of Rick the Warmonger:

I am profoundly disappointed by President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to invite Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to offer the invocation at his inauguration. The president-elect has bestowed a great honor on a man whose recent comments suggest he is both homophobic, xenophobic, and willing to use the machinery of the state to enforce his prejudices—even going so far as to support the assassination of foreign leaders.

In his home state of California, Mr. Warren’s campaigned aggressively to deny gay and lesbian couples equal rights under the law, relying on arguments that are both morally offensive and theologically crude. Christian leaders differ passionately with one another over the morality of same-sex relationships, but only the most extreme liken the loving, lifelong partnerships of their fellow citizens to incest and pedophilia, as Mr. Warren has done. The president-elect’s willingness to associate himself with a man who espouses these views as a means of reaching out to religious conservatives suggests a willingness to use the aspirations of gay and lesbian Americans as bargaining chips, and I find this deeply troubling.

Mr. Warren has been rightly praised for his efforts to deepen the engagement of evangelical Christians with impoverished Africans. He has been justifiably lauded for putting the AIDS epidemic and global warming on the political agenda of the Christian right. Yet extravagant compassion toward some of God’s people does not justify the repression of others. Jesus came to save all of humankind, and as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out, “All means all.” But rather than embrace the wisdom of Archbishop Tutu, Mr. Warren has allied himself with men such as Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda who seek to “purify” the Anglican Communion, of which my Church is a member, by driving out gay and lesbian Christians and their supporters.

In choosing Mr. Warren, the president-elect has sent a distressing message internationally as well. In a recent television interview, Mr. Warren voiced his support for the assassination of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These bizarre and regrettable remarks come at a time when much of the Muslim world already fears a Christian crusade against Islamic countries. Imagine our justifiable outrage if an Iranian cleric who advocated the assassination of President Bush had been selected to offer prayers when Ahmadinejad was sworn in.

I have worked with former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to improve the relationship between our two countries as hawkish members of the Bush administration pushed for another war. He has spoken at the National Cathedral, which will host the president-elect’s inaugural prayer service, and I have visited with him several times in Iran and elsewhere. Iranian clerics are intensely interested in the religious attitudes of America’s leaders. In choosing Mr. Warren to offer the invocation at his inauguration, the president-elect has sent the chilling, and, I feel certain, unintended message that he is comfortable with Christians who can justify lethal violence against Muslims.

I understand that in selecting Mr. Warren, Mr. Obama is signaling a willingness to work with both sides in our country’s culture wars. I appreciate that there is political advantage in elevating the relatively moderate Mr. Warren above some of his brethren on the Religious Right. But in honoring Mr. Warren, the president-elect confers legitimacy on attitudes that are deeply contrary to the all-inclusive love of God. He is courting the powerful at the expense of the marginalized, and in doing so, he stands the Gospel on its head.

Obama selects Rick "Warmonger" Warren to deliver inauguration invocation

President Obama has selected Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Warren has, to his credit, pushed Evangelical Christians to attend to global issues such as genocide, global warming and HIV/AIDS. President Obama must govern from the center to achieve his agenda. Inviting Warren is a conciliatory and savvy move, and the President-elect deserves commendation.

However, the fact remains that Warren is a homophobe and a warmonger. He is among the best of what is frankly a bad bunch. Inviting Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo would not have had the same political effect among conservative Evangelicals, but these leaders are far more worthy than Warren.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Trust and finance

I've written previously about John Rogers, CEO of the Ariel Funds. Although the funds have performed very poorly in the last couple years, Rogers is recognized as a skilled value investor and has assembled an excellent long-term record. He's also one of the few African-Americans in finance, and he makes it a point to give back to his community. His firm adopted a class in Chicago's South Side and made finance and investing a core part of the curriculum, giving each class $20,000 to invest through their elementary school careers.

Rogers, when asked why African-Americans don't invest more, points to the lack of education about finance in American public schools. He has a very valid point - but I don't think it's the only reason. Social relationships are critical in teaching financial literacy and encouraging investing.

I see the recent case of Bernard Madoff as an example. Madoff was a hedge fund manager who oversaw as much as $17 billion in assets. However, it was all a giant Ponzi scheme, probably the largest ever carried out by one individual(Enron and the subprime fiasco were larger, but Enron was a S&P 500 company and the subprime thing involved most major banks).

Madoff had significant connections among the Jewish community and was a "pillar of finance and charity." He served on the board of Yeshiva University and other institutions.

“He was thought of as a great philanthropist, a pillar of the community, the chairman of Nasdaq — all of that stuff,” said one hedge fund executive who knew him.

“There was a joke around that Bernie was actually the Jewish T-bill,” the executive went on, referring to the ultrasecure investment of treasury bills. “He was that safe.”

Mr. Madoff had traveled far from his roots in eastern Queens, where as a young man he cobbled together a $5,000 grubstake from his earnings as a lifeguard and sprinkler installer to start the famed investment firm that eventually bore his name, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.

He had come to move easily in the clubby Jewish world that iterates between New York City and its suburbs and southern satellites like Palm Beach.

Indeed, in the world of Jewish New York, where Mr. Madoff, 70, was raised and found success, he is largely still considered as a macher: a big-hearted big shot for whom philanthropy and family always intertwined with — and were equally as important as — finance.

In other words, he had many connections and the trust of the Jewish community.

Of course, it was all a fraud. Hedge funds of all stripes have been facing many requests for redemptions. They have to sell securities to meet redemptions. It appears that Madoff's entire operation was a fraud, so he had no securities to sell. Had more people been investing money than redeeming it he might not have been found out, but the opposite was the case.

Madoff gives us a very spectacular lesson about the power of trust within racial/ethnic groups. Of course, readers shouldn't plan on starting Ponzi schemes among their social networks. However, if Madoff managed to cheat a lot of people by leveraging the power of social networks, the converse is true: if properly leveraged, social networks could be a tool for empowerment. John Rogers' actions in Chicago are one example, as are Grameen Bank's actions in Bangladesh and the salon workers affiliated with Cut It Out, an anti-domestic violence initiative. There are a number of for-profit banks on the U.S. West Coast that serve predominantly a Chinese-American clientèle, such as Cathay Bancorp and East-West Bancorp. As the CEO of one small Chinese-American bank put it, Chinese prefer to bank with Chinese."

Fear of a worthless car warranty

One poster on the Sojourners forum, where Jim Wallis asked us to take the automakers' apology at face value, expressed deep skepticism that consumers would shy away from buying a car from an automaker in bankruptcy. This was in response to my post asserting that they would do so, and that therefore, a Chapter 11 bankruptcy by any of the Detroit 3 was likely to lead to that automaker's liquidation.

CNN Money cites a survey by CNW research showing bankruptcy concerns were the single biggest reason potential buyers were avoiding GM cars in their survey.

It's impossible for me to assess the quality of CNW's research. I'm sure that the auto makers and the UAW will be relying heavily on their figures. A previous article by Morningstar stated that "Industry research has found 80% of vehicle buyers would not buy a vehicle from a bankrupt company, indicating bankruptcy is not the path to viability some claim it to be." In formulating public policy, one should not rely exclusively on industry research. Public policy survey research should ideally use a large, randomly selected sample. If CNW is a smaller shop, it might not have the resources to conduct a sufficiently large sample. Besides that, there are plenty of ways for random error or researcher bias to intrude into a study, thus affecting the validity of its results. I would be more inclined to take research by relatively neutral parties like the Congressional Budget Office at face value.

That said, I find that CNW's contentions seem reasonable on the face of things. From the CNN article:

Among GM owners who bought their next car from another manufacturer, 32% cited a potential bankruptcy as the reason. The next biggest reason - dealership or pricing issues - pushed away only 11% of shoppers.

If GM (GM, Fortune 500) were to go bankrupt, 97% shoppers intending to buy a car within six months said they would stay away from the automaker, according to a different CNW survey. The figure for Chrysler was even higher at 98%.

Some bankruptcy supporters point to airlines like Delta that successfully emerged from Chapter 11 protection while customers continued to fly, but auto manufacturers present a special challenge.

A $300 plane ticket for a three-hour flight is one thing. $25,000 for a car you will drive for years is quite another. Consumers are concerned that the company might not be around when it's time for warranty work.

Car shoppers' concerns about automakers' survival are justified, said Art Spinella of CNW. "It's one thing when you hear about Circuit City," he said. "I can always get my TV fixed somewhere else."

The CNN article reports that some people are seeing the opportunity to get a bargain:

But for some shoppers, the fear of a worthless warranty is mitigated by big bargains. "The people that will be buying in today's climate are clearly people who are balancing the risk with what kind deals they can get," Reed said.

He recently advised a friend who was considering buying a Chevrolet Traverse crossover SUV to try to get the best deal he could. "If you bought a Chevy Traverse today and the company went out of business," said Reed. "it's not like there's a computer chip in it that's going to blow out on the highway." Whatever happens, parts will always be available for GM vehicles, he said.

Spinella of CNW was less sanguine. If a major U.S carmaker were to go bankrupt, dealerships would close and it would take some time to work out where cars would be serviced. "You're probably looking at two or three years just to figure out what's going on," he said.

A related, and possibly more serious, issue is resale value. It plummets for discontinued brands, even in cases where the manufacturer stays in business and fully supports the warranty, according to data from Kelley Blue Book.

After Chrysler's Plymouth and GM's Oldsmobile brands died, two-year-old cars with those badges suddenly had the value of five-year-old cars, according to KBB.

But even that kind of a financial hit could be covered by negotiating enough of a discount on the car when it's first purchased, said James Bell, publisher of the automotive Web site

"It depends on whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person," he said.

However, bargain hunters won't keep Chrysler or GM in business if either is in Chapter 11. If they're selling their products at a steep discount, they'll obviously be losing money on every vehicle they sell. Unless the skeptics can come up with contradictory evidence, policymakers should assume there's a significant risk of consumers not wanting to buy cars from an auto manufacturer in Chapter 11.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Revering a symbol of Mexican faith and identity

From the NY Times

She came into New York across the George Washington Bridge, a gold-framed portrait of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary escorted by a procession of pilgrims in gray jogging sweats.

A few carried torches that, along with the image of Mexico’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, left the Roman Catholic basilica in Mexico City that bears her name two months ago and reached St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Friday morning.

Jose Reyes, a stout 45-year-old construction worker who lives in the Bronx, got up at 4:30 a.m. with other members of his parish there, Immaculate Conception Church, to accompany the portrait into the city. Many local Catholic parishes with large Mexican congregations took part in the procession, a celebration of the Dec. 12 Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As he walked through Manhattan, Mr. Reyes said, a sense of pride filled his spirit.

“It’s indescribable what you feel when you’re walking with her, knowing that she came all the way from where your roots began,” he said after a 10 a.m. Mass at the historic Fifth Avenue cathedral.

For many in the procession, the grandeur of the city’s concrete monoliths, its wealth and its well-dressed denizens briefly faded amid memories of humble towns in Mexico, of families crossing borders to be together for the holidays and of children playing in timeless colonial church plazas.

It is a common saying that you are not really Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, wrote that “after two centuries of experiment and failure, the Mexican people only believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

According to Mexican lore, the Virgin appeared in December 1531 before an indigenous farmer and laborer named Juan Diego Cuautlatoatzin. The brown-skinned apparition told Juan Diego that she was the mother of Jesus and that she wanted a church on the Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec temple dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin.

Both Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe are passionately revered as holy incarnations of Mexican identity. Recognizing their evangelical significance, Pope John Paul II, who canonized Juan Diego in 2002, declared the Virgin of Guadalupe “Queen of the Americas.”

The portrait that arrived at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Friday morning is a replica of the revered image kept at the Mexico City basilica. The portrait, about 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, left Mexico City two months ago, and was brought by vehicle across the border, across the country and into New York, followed by pilgrims on foot and in cars.

During the Mass on Friday morning, the image was placed to the right of the altar. On the left was an image of Juan Diego.

Hundreds of Mexican families brought their young children in simple, traditional clothing for a special blessing toward the end of the Mass. The boys were dressed to look like Juan Diego, with a tilma, or cloak, bearing the image of the Virgin. In the story, that image was proof of her appearance on Tepeyac Hill.

“If there are any Juan Dieguitos, you can come up,” Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie said in Spanish. “We welcome all the children for this special blessing.”

Boys, from infants to toddlers, their upper lips sporting mustaches drawn with makeup or face paint, were brought up to the altar, some of them crying. Within seconds, the monsignor disappeared amid dozens of Mexican families. Only the hand he used to bless the children could be seen rising from the crowd.

Hipolito Garcia, a 35-year-old warehouse worker from Union City, N.J., brought his 5-month-old son, Rigo, and 3-year-old daughter, Roselyn, to the Mass for the blessing. Mr. Garcia is an illegal immigrant who is trying to gain legal residency through his wife, Teresa Calyeca, a United States citizen.

Mr. Garcia, who came to the New York City area from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala in 1991, said his prayers on Friday were for the legalization of the millions of Mexican immigrants “sin papeles,” or without papers.

“We also pray for a better economy,” Mr. Garcia said. “I have a job now, thank God. But we pray for things to improve all over. This economic crisis is worldwide.”

The portrait that made the trip from Mexico is owned by the Asociación Tepeyac de New York, an education and advocacy group that organized the procession, said a Mexico City government official who was at the Mass.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What's a Christian reaction to the automaker debacle?

Jim Wallis, writing for Sojourners, says that in relation to the Detroit crisis, relationships are central to Christianity, and that as a society we should remain in relationship to the automakers if we want some sort of reasonable conclusion to this crisis:

The heart of our faith is about relationships. How they are broken and how they are fixed. Righteousness is the term we use that means “right relationships.” It may sound like an oversimplification, especially in light of all of the complex market instruments that are in use today, but the root of all of this financial mess and turmoil are broken relationships, broken social covenants.

The relationship between employer and employee. The relationship between corporations and community. The relationship between stock holders and executives. The relationship between consumers and their creditors. The relationship between the businesses, the government, and our civic institutions. The relationship between people and the planet we live on. These relationships are broken, distorted, and even abandoned. All of them are in need of redemption.

If all that come out of this crisis are some new regulations on naked short-selling, transparency in hedge funds, realistic credit ratings for mortgage backed securities, and a slap on the wrist for those who spent more than they had, then we have missed the point. All or some of these actions may be good and may be necessary, but no maze of regulations or army of watch dogs can ever change It'the fact that we have broken and abandoned the relationships that build up the foundations of a good society. As I have said before, this economic crisis is both structural and spiritual.

If we only treat the symptoms of the problems without also seeking personal and communal transformation, we will find ourselves on the losing side of this battle. However, if we fail to regulate our markets and hope that the “invisible hand” will turn all our vices into virtues, we fall into the painful naiveté that brought us to this place to begin with.

Wallis mentions that society needs to reconstruct its relationship to greed. That's an obvious tack for Christians to take. Jesus commanded us to favor the poor, so it's obvious to me that Christians should favor offering financial assistance to displaced workers, assuming it is possible - and no matter what happens, there will be a lot of displaced workers.

It's harder for me to say how Jesus would feel about offering aid to the Detroit 3. Corporations often behave like sociopaths, and if Jesus had come today, he might well have forbidden his followers from offering them any sort of aid. However, the Detroit 3 are also not entirely responsible for the mess they are in. They didn't force Americans to buy gas guzzlers, for example, and to let them fail would be to cut off one's nose to spite one's face.

Either way, corporations also need a fundamental restructuring of how they relate to society and individuals. They are essentially immortal entities, and the worst they have to fear is public outcry and possibly fines. I've never seen a healthy corporation discorporated by regulators for social sins, so essentially corporations do not fear public reprisal for these sins. Sociopaths also do not fear punishment. Corporations at their worst act like sociopaths. GM, Ford and Chrysler have acted like sociopaths in the past. This cannot continue. Whether or not Jesus would approve of financial assistance for the Detroit 3, He would demand that corporations restructure their personalities, so to speak.

Auto industry bailout fails as US Senate Republicans demand more concessions from unions

The New York Times reports that the proposed bridge loan to GM and Chrysler has failed to pass the US Senate. The House passed the legislation last night.

Senate Republicans were demanding larger wage and benefit cuts from the UAW; Republicans wanted the auto companies to bring their worker compensation levels in line with those of the foreign automakers.

I have to wonder if the Senate Republicans are letting their traditional hostility to unions get to their heads. People often throw around the statistic that UAW members at the Big 3 make $73 an hour, compared to $48 an hour at the foreign auto makers. The problem is that the raw average wages made by current employees at the Detroit 3 are far more comparable to wages at foreign automakers. The NY Times says that foreign automakers' laborers take home about $45 an hour, compared to about $55 an hour at the Detroit 3 after the last round of labor cuts. The graphic to the left shows figures for Ford. The Detroit 3 pay they equivalent of about $15 an hour in costs related to retiree benefits. They can't do anything about this - the Detroit 3 accumulated those liabilities because they were operating when that's what companies did. These days companies shift the retirement burden to employees.

It's true that the UAW should reduce their wages to be in line with their foreign competition. However, it's also true that labor costs make up only 10% of what it costs to build a vehicle. The Times states that having the UAW take a cut to $45 an hour equivalent and having the government subsidize $10 an hour equivalent of retiree benefits would save the Detroit 3 only $800 a vehicle - and they already sell their vehicles about $2,500 cheaper than foreign competitors on average.

And so, it isn't clear to me whether the Republicans wanted the UAW to cut wages exclusive of benefits, or to cut wages so that wages plus benefits would be in line with the foreign automakers. The latter would be asking way too much. In my view, the former would be reasonable.

The main problems here are that the domestic automakers have massive overcapacity and that Americans aren't buying their cars. Although the Detroit 3 have made significant strides in improving quality, they've done so too late, and consumers still have the perception of a quality gap. Reducing labor costs should be done, but I don't think that a possibly critical bridge loan should have been held up over labor costs - it raises the question over whether some Republicans are simply trying to bust the UAW. Of course, a number of the things the UAW has done over the years don't exactly encourage public sympathy. Alternatively, a number of Republicans oppose the bailout on ideological grounds and may have made unreasonable demands just to scuttle it.

The White House now says that it will use funds allocated for the bank rescue plan to prevent immediate bankruptcy at the Detroit 3. The White House had previously refused to do so.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thinking Anglicans: The power of story

Andrew Spur writes for Thinking Anglicans:

There is an old saw which says that God invented humanity because God loves stories. In the tradition of the Hebrew people, there was a prohibition against rendering their God in the plastic arts and so they went to town on narrative and thoroughly delighted in it. The Hebrew sacred texts are story and counter-story describing worlds and the God who is active in those worlds. If you are familiar with the world painted by the Deuteronomist, that you get what you deserve, and God rewards the righteous, then the Book of Job comes alive as a counter-story, protesting that ill-fortune falls on the righteous too, and the reasons are hidden in the depths of God.

The Christmas stories are counter-stories. They are stories which are holding out for a God and a world which will work differently to the one in which the storytellers live. Matthew uses the Moses story, and Luke the call of Samuel, to tell their listeners that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth. We know that the Christmas stories are counter-stories because they use words for Jesus of Nazareth which the early audience will have associated with Augustus Caesar. Caesar was Son of God, Prince of Peace, and our Christmas birth story writers are saying that Jesus is these things, in other words, Jesus is, Caesar is not. Caesar’s Roman Peace is fine if you are Roman, and so long as Caesar has the biggest army. The peace of Jesus of Nazareth is about seeking out those who do not benefit from Roman peace, and including them at life’s table. Our Christmas stories are asking us whether our God is more likely to be found in a Roman palace, or a cow’s feeding trough.

All of this is commonplace for first year students in Biblical studies, I’m saying nothing new. But over the last several years my worry has been that we have lost our grip on the power of story. When you clear our public spaces of religious stories (particularly those pressed into the service of worldly interest) you are not left with a pristine post-Enlightenment space. The power of stories is that they are ways of inviting us to consider who we might be, they invite us to make lives in the worlds they describe, and they invite our loyalty and our resources. This is too much power to be left unfulfilled.

Into this space come the storytellers we know, news organisations, spin doctors and advertisements, each seeking to frame the world and our place in it. With the technological gap between generations, the worry is that our children are being formed by stories told by Nintendo, Sony and the like. After school our children step into virtual worlds which are laid out before them. They can progress through these worlds with the purchase of each upgrade, and they are being encouraged to acquire skills which will help them be promoted through the moral universes the games companies have described.

All of this goes by stealth because this happens unsupervised. Work-weary parents may even be grateful for the diversion. Narratives are being quietly assimilated, and these are shared in the schoolyard, and young friends measure each other by their skill and knowledge in worlds barely guessed at by those who have the care of developing the next generation.

We need to dispense with the tinsel-and-teatowel Christmas and recover its visceral power in the world where the story was first told, a world which was about brute force and malnutrition. We need to rediscover the power of telling stories of a God which runs counter to the prevailing values of the day.

If we can recover Christmas as a counter-story in its own day under Rome, we might want to start telling new counter-stories about the God we believe in, in our own day, to the Playstation generation.

Businessweek: Fixing Detroit—and jump-starting U.S. manufacturing—is possible, if companies adopt "high-involvement" management practices

James O'Toole, professor of business ethics at Denver University, argues in a Businessweek article that "high-involvement" business practices can enable higher-wage workers to compete successfully against lower-wage workers by making them produce better products. This has critical implications for the Detroit 3.

In the grocery space, I think of Whole Foods versus Wal-Mart. Whole Foods workers get a stock plan and have significant autonomy. Wal-Mart's workers, and other low-wage workers, are managed to death by petty bureaucracies that stifle independent thought and innovation. High-involvement allows workers more dignity - and franky, Christians ought to prefer companies that use such practices.

In fact, O'Toole argues that automakers, including the Detroit 3, use or have used high-involvement practices in the past.

Exhibit One:

Currently, American workers make quality cars—and profitably—in U.S.-based plants owned by Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC) and Nissan (NSANY). These workers are not unionized and do not enjoy the same retirement benefits as their peers in Detroit. While that difference gives Japanese manufactures a decided cost advantage over their American-owned rivals, it does not account for the much higher labor productivity and quality standards found in the U.S.-based Japanese plants than in Detroit. As Toyota executives testify, their workers are more motivated and productive than their peers in Detroit because they participate in high-involvement working environments.

What this means is that production tasks in Japanese-managed plants are organized in ways that allow—and encourage—workers to add value to the manufacturing process by way of their ideas and initiative. Instead of Detroit's adversarial "us vs. them" labor relations, workers and management in the Japanese-owned plants see themselves as part of the same team, and both enjoy the fruits of their joint successes. As a consequence, workers in the Japanese-owned plants not only are more productive than their oversupervised and rule-constricted counterparts in Detroit, they actually have greater job security because the cars they make are more price-competitive with cars made abroad. Adding in bonuses, and adjusting for fewer involuntary layoffs, they also may actually bring home a larger total income over the course of their careers.
Exhibit Two:

The productive potential of high-involvement practices was demonstrated to the UAW and to General Motors in a series of experiments beginning in the early 1970s, first at auto-parts supplier Harman Industries, then at GM's Tarrytown (N.Y.) assembly plant and, most dramatically, in the '80s at GM's joint-venture with Nissan in Fremont, Calif. Ford's dramatic comeback from near bankruptcy in the mid-'80s was due, in large part, to an unprecedented period of labor-management cooperation in which tens of thousands of jobs were saved when the UAW set aside traditional work-restrictive practices in exchange for employee profit-sharing and worker self-management in small teams. For the first time since the death of Henry Ford, the company had the best-selling car in America, and it made unprecedented profits.

That brief, golden era came to an abrupt end when the Ford family petulantly replaced its far-sighted CEO, Donald Petersen, with the early-industrial-age throwback, Jacques Nasser, who quickly centralized total control of the company under his command. Ford's progressive management practices were curtailed, and productivity and profits quickly slipped back to pre-Petersen era levels. Across town, GM's top executives similarly decided to put their "managerial prerogatives" ahead of productivity and profits, declaring they wanted no part of "Japanese management." Instead, they planned to automate the union into impotence. After all, robots work 24/7, and they don't collect pensions!

To make matters worse, the UAW's old-guard leadership then breathed a sigh of relief, and happily returned to what they did best: pursuing conflict with management over economically unjustifiable wage and benefit demands.

In sum, knowledge about the advantages of high-involvement workplaces has been available in Detroit for nearly 40 years, but Big Three executives and UAW leaders have repeatedly rejected it, much as they have rejected the manifest need to build small, fuel-efficient cars.
Exhibit Three:

In the late '80s, motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson (HOG) was in deep trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy and plagued by most of the same problems currently besetting U.S. auto manufacturers. To save their company, and its five thousand jobs, Harley executives and the UAW hammered out a groundbreaking contract in which the company agreed to keep production in the U.S. in exchange for constantly reducing total labor costs. Harley workers were reorganized into self-managing teams and rewarded financially for their efforts to improve production methods, product quality, and customer service. Over the next decade, Harley's domestic workforce grew to more than 9,500, its productivity and profitability greatly improved, and its high-quality motorcycles found new markets around the globe (even in Asia).

Of course, adopting high-involvement techniques is no panacea. All the employee efforts in the world can't overcome the handicap of products that no one wants to buy or cost structures that are out of line with labor productivity. And hammering out contracts, like the one at Harley, requires real, and painful, concessions from both labor and management, such as lower executive salaries and reduced pension and retiree health-care benefits. Indeed, the most legitimate role the U.S. government might play in any Detroit bailout would to assist with easing the effects of such changes on union retirees.

Even failing that, it is in the long-term interest of employees, employers, and the nation for more manufacturing companies to adopt the high-involvement practices found not only at Harley but at W.L. Gore, SRC Holdings, and Nucor (NUE) in other American industries. What is at stake here is not just Detroit. In a 2002 scientific survey of a cross-section of the entire domestic workforce, the U.S. Census Bureau found that the most motivated, committed, and loyal employees in all industries are those who participate most fully in decisions that affect their own work, and those who share most fully in the financial gains resulting from their ideas and efforts (through profit-sharing, stock ownership, and the like). All told, there is mounting evidence that, when properly deployed, led, and rewarded, American factory workers can make goods that are price-competitive with foreign imports, even those from low-wage countries.

The opportunity is at hand to halt the export of good American jobs, and perhaps even to recapture some of those recently lost. Far more effective than trying to prevent U.S. industries from exporting jobs, one of the most effective ways the Obama Administration can deliver on its promise to protect and create domestic private employment is to encourage American business and labor leaders to adopt high-involvement workplace practices. The place to start is with the high-visibility auto industry, and the time to do so is now, while there is real leverage over both labor and management.

Encouraging American businesses to adopt high-involvement management practices will, I hope, eventually force Asian businesses to do the same. I would hope to see such practices improve labor conditions in the sweatshop industry. I'm not trying to understate the need for stronger labor laws, because there will probably always be a market for low-involvement mass production labor, but there is the potential to transform the global labor movement from the bottom up.

Autonomy is a fundamental human need. In psychology experiments, American nursing home residents who were given even limited control over their daily routines lived longer than those who did not. Autonomy is a fundamental part of human dignity. Sweatshops are a fundamental denial of human dignity. So are inflexible management practices at places like Wal-Mart. Conversely, if O'Toole is right, American industries have much to gain from adopting high-involvement practices and allowing their workers greater levels of autonomy.

International Human Rights Day: sorry I'm one day off

I had got it in my head for some reason that International Human Rights Day was today, on my birthday - but it was yesterday. Sorry! Humanist readers of this blog should note that the International Humanist and Ethical Union endorses IHRD as a day of Humanist celebration.

This date was chosen in by the UN General Assembly in 1950 to honor the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Human rights are the rights that all of us have simply because we are human. It also describes the duties we have to other human beings so that their human rights will not be violated.

God loves all human beings equally. Nothing in the Universal Declaration violates any core tenet of Christian doctrine. In contrast, Jesus' demand that we love our neighbor would be fulfilled if we obeyed everything in the Universal Declaration. Christians, therefore, ought to take the Universal Declaration into consideration in both their public and private actions.

This International Human Rights Day is dedicated to the Chinese protesters who gathered yesterday at the foreign ministry to demand redress for violations of their human rights. Many of them were arrested, as BBC reports.

Some sought justice for dead relatives, and they carried photographs of their family members; others gave out details of land disputes, illegal detentions and incidents of local corruption.

Yang Guiyin, a middle-aged woman from Shanxi, told the Associated Press that her land had been taken away four years ago for development, and she had still not received any compensation.

"Today is human rights day, but there are no human rights in China. I want my land, I want to eat," she said.

"I came here because I want to have justice for my family," 53-year-old Wu Zhongbao told the French news agency AFP.

Mr Wu claims his mother was beaten to death by police when their home in Jiangsu was forcefully demolished - a charge denied by the authorities there.

The police arrived quickly to stem the protest, cordoning off the demonstrators and later flagging down a public bus to take them away.

China has detained several activists in the run-up to the anniversary of the UN rights declaration.

Liu Xiaobo, famous for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, was taken away on Monday evening, and other dissidents including Zhang Zuhua, Chen Xi and Shen Youlian have also been detained in recent days.

Mr Liu had signed Charter 08, an online letter calling for democracy in China, timed to coincide with the anniversary.

Prayers for those arrested, that China will continue to improve its respect for human rights, and that Western political leaders will stop using human rights as a cynical tool to advance their own agendas.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Auto industry: more comments

I'd previously stated that I wouldn't oppose a bankruptcy by one or more of the domestic US auto makers. However, an article by Morningstar reminds me that I neglected to consider two points of information: consumers may not consider buying a vehicle from a bankrupt auto maker. This is not like flying on an airline, where the airline's obligation to you ends when they drop you off. Consumers will depend on auto manufacturers and dealers to honor the warranties. Even if the government makes some attempt to guarantee a warranty, consumers might decide not to trust that guarantee when there are so many healthy foreign companies.

Additionally, Ford and GM share 80% of their parts suppliers. If one firm were to liquidate, that could well drive the suppliers into bankruptcy. If that happens, the domestic automakers would go as well. In fact, many foreign firms use the same suppliers.

This being the case, the least bad option is a government-overseen reorganization. The economic consequences will simply be too severe otherwise.

This will still be painful. Readers probably know that Congress is already passing an initial rescue plan. It's almost certain that the Obama administration will need to pass a second round of funding.

However, there's more. The automakers will need to slim down, which will reduce the sales of their suppliers. Many of these have heavy debt loads. Morningstar contends that many Tier 1 (i.e. the largest) suppliers won't make it through 2009. Many of the smaller Tier 2 and 3 suppliers will go out of business as well.

In addition, many auto dealers, especially smaller ones and those that primarily sell domestic brands, will go bankrupt.

The Morningstar article outlines the three possible scenarios: bankruptcy and liquidation, bankruptcy with the government providing operating funds, and reorganization outside of bankruptcy. Read if interested.

Rick Warren, warmonger

I previously described noted Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, author of the book The Purpose Driven Life, as a moderate.

I was wrong.

The Political Animal, a blog on The Washington Monthly, has a Dec 4 post about Warren:

WARREN ENDORSES HANNITY'S WARMONGERING.... Pastor Rick Warren has a reputation for being far more stable and grounded than religious right leaders and TV preachers like Pat Robertson, but it's worth remembering that he's not exactly a moderate.

Last night, on Fox News, Sean Hannity insisted that United States needs to "take out" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Warren said he agreed. Hannity asked, "Am I advocating something dark, evil or something righteous?" Warren responded, "Well, actually, the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped.... In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers."

Matt Duss explained why Warren's comments are problematic on a variety of levels.

Does Warren really consider it part of his ministry to sanctify the inch-deep theologizing-cum-warmongering of thugs like Sean Hannity? If so, who else does Warren think Jesus would bomb?

I contacted Pastor Warren's office for clarification, specifically to find out where, exactly, the Bible says that "God puts government on earth to punish evildoers" like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They said they'd get back to me. I'll update if and when they do. I suspect Warren was referring to Romans 13, in which the Apostle Paul admonished Christians to submit to governing authorities (Hear that Hannity? Submit!), and also addressed the power of civil government to punish criminals. This has nothing to do, as far as I know, with invading foreign countries and killing their leaders, which is the context in which Warren is speaking.

In any case, if this were a conversation between an Iranian TV host and an ayatollah in which they discussed scriptural justifications for "taking out" high ranking members of the U.S. government, you'd probably see Sean Hannity running the clip on his show -- while slowly shaking his head in pious disapproval -- as evidence of what crazy extremists those Iranians are. As it is, they'll probably be running this on Iranian TV as evidence of what crazy extremists those Americans are.

Later, Warren's office called Duss back to say the pastor was, in fact, referring to Romans 13. When Duss noted the chapter and verse make no reference to killing foreign leaders, Warren's representative said she'd have to look into it.

Something to keep in mind the next time Warren presents himself as the leader of a new breed of reasonable evangelical leaders.

Matt Duss, author of the blog Wonk Room linked above, gave us a transcript of Warren's conversation with Hannity, a noted right-wing ideologue:

HANNITY: Can you talk to rogue dictators? Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the map, is seeking nuclear weapons.


HANNITY: I think we need to take him out.


HANNITY: Am I advocating something dark, evil or something righteous?

WARREN: Well, actually, the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped. And I believe…

HANNITY: By force?

WARREN: Well, if necessary. In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers. [Editor: likely a reference to Romans 13, see below]

HANNITY: I’m just gotten, thanks to my wife, who you know, you know, been reading the Old Testament. Because as a good Catholic growing up, I studied more the New Testament.

WARREN: Just ignored that part.

HANNITY: I ignored the Old Testament. But what about King David? What about the — all the battles, all the conflict, you know, going back - - you know, Abraham — Adam and Eve and their children, going forward?

WARREN: The point is, there are some things worth dying for. There’s no doubt about that. And I would die for my family. I would die for my freedom. I would die for this country.

HANNITY: If somebody broke into your house, you would be justified to kill them?

WARREN: I would be justified to protect my family. Absolutely.

HANNITY: And if it took killing them?

WARREN: Absolutely.

HANNITY: But it’s not murder at that point?

WARREN: No. Murder is not self-defense.

Duss called Warren's office and confirmed that Warren was referring to Romans 13, which says

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority* does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.

Warren's ill-considered advice is not based on Romans 13 at all, then, because it is an exhortation to individual Christians living in the Roman empire. At the time, Roman persecution of Christians was rife. Paul asks that Christians submit to the authorities, presumably where their conduct is lawful.

Paul does not ask Christians to disobey or remove authorities they disagree with. Paul does not say that countries should remove illegitimate authorities by military force. Now, Mahmoud Ahmenijad is certainly an evildoer. It may be legitimate to remove him. But there is no basis in scripture to suggest that the United States is somehow qualified to unilaterally decide to remove him.

Warren's contention that "the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with" also seems suspect to me. I'm not sure what passage he refers to here. However, everyone can be negotiated with on some level. Jesus said to love our enemies, and whatever any other passage says, that has to take primacy. For Jesus' sake, then, we should assume that our enemies, even those we consider evil, can be negotiated with. Acting in self-defense is legitimate, but a preemptive military strike to destroy them would be against international law, and probably against God's law as well.

Rick, you disappoint me.

PS, Rick "Warmonger" Warren also invoked scripture to ask his followers to vote for California's Proposition 8, which reversed the Supreme Court's decision affirming the right of same sex couples to marry.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Additional reflection on Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk's Wikipedia article mentions that he was Jewish.

I consider him a martyr to Christians as well; in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek. As I said, I consider him to have been doing the work of Christ, even if he did not call it that. However, I am not and was not trying to negate his cultural heritage. He was Jewish. For that matter, Jesus was Jewish too. He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.

The author of JVoices, a progressive Jewish blog, asks “Why don’t people know Harvey Milk is Jewish?”

When I googled “Harvey Milk and Jewish” to see what I would find in the latest news articles and reviews of the film, let’s just say I was underwhelmed with results.

What I have found is that, rather than explicitly discussing Milk as an Ashkenazi Jew, pieces describe his features, like his nose, his voice (usually saying he has a Long Island accent. So much of this brings up Sander Gilman’s The Jew’s Body, for me), or his political personality.

In reading the articles, I kept feeling this unease. In particular I sent around the Salon review by Andrew O’Hehir to a few friends, to ask them what they thought of Milk’s description where O’Hehir wrote:

In a city of buff and beautiful gay men, Milk had funny hair, bad clothes (when he broke into politics, he bought three secondhand suits and wore them over and over again), a big honker and an abrasive Long Island accent. He was ferociously loyal to his friends and allies but could be ruthless toward others; his sweetness and compassion concealed a powerful will and a provocative, prankish sense of humor.

He did everything but say Ashkenazi Jew, and the responses I got back from people were mixed. One person found it offensive; another coded; another who said that listing descriptors doesn’t make it inherently negative. (feel free to add your take below).

The feedback was interesting, but I was still wrestling with this larger question — what of this invisibility?

I haven’t been able to get over the irony of O’Hehir writing about Milk “busting open America’s closet,” while simultaneously writing him into a Jewish one, not that O’Hehir is alone in this.

The few Jewish blog sites I’ve seen mention the film all have this “ah ha” moment where the writer realizes that they never knew this prominent figure in U.S. politics was Jewish. But at least they had the “ah ha” moment.

There may be something to be said about colonialism here. In the movie Milk, Milk, played by Sean Penn, says

“Dan, I have had four relationships in my life. And three of them tried to commit suicide, and it’s my fault because I kept them hidden and quiet because I was closeted and weak …. This is not just jobs or issues. This is our lives we’re fighting for.”

Christians who read my reflection on Harvey should take care that they do not put Harvey into a non-Jewish closet.

It seems that Harvey did go to a progressive synagogue, as the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California documents. He attended Sha'ar Zahav, which was established for Jews who felt excluded from mainstream Judaism on account of their sexual orientation.

In her sermon, Sha'ar Zahav's Rabbi Jane Litman said that a yahrzeit helps to establish the collective memory of the community.

"A lot of our congregation members are too young to remember him," she said later. Her sermon spoke of "looking to the heroes of our community for moral guidance. Our social action fund is named after Harvey Milk. He is a bright star in our firmament."

Litman also read a message from Bennett, now at Alameda's Temple Israel, joking that "although Harvey was agnostic, had he lived he would have been a strong member" of Sha'ar Zahav.

Elva Smith, the mother of Harvey Milk's deceased partner Scott Smith, also read from the siddur.

After the service, the memorial turned into a tikkun leyl, an all-night study session.

"We thought since no one slept the night Harvey was murdered, we wanted to honor him" by studying without rest, Litman said.

In the late hours, the lights were left on in the synagogue as congregants listened to panelists speak of personal memories of Harvey Milk.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who left as Sha'ar Zahav's spiritual leader two years ago and now leads Stanford Hillel, also participated. Bob Kelley introduced the photo exhibit of Milk he curated at San Francisco's New Main Library. Kevin Schaub, executive director of the Harvey Milk Institute, which co-sponsored the event, also spoke, as did Jonathan Katz and Suzanne Loebl.

Finally, as the sun rose to warm the synagogue Saturday morning, those still left greeted it by reading from the Torah.

"A lot of people were crying. This is a big thing for us," Saslafsky said.

"Twenty years ago no one wanted us; we saw ourselves as a small, marginalized group. To now be in a beautiful building, and have a growing, young congregation is poignant and powerful."

Panel advises more screening of troops for brain injuries

The New York Times reports that a panel advising the U.S. military recommends more screening of troops for traumatic brain injuries, the signature injury of the Iraq war.

TBIs are invisible injuries. A TBI may well go unnoticed at first. Additionally, they can have lifelong and debilitating consequences. This can be a bad combination for people going back to school: they may be unable to concentrate, but if undiagnosed, they may also not know why they are having difficulty focusing. At their worst, TBIs can cause personality changes and lead to increased domestic violence, as the Brain Injury Association of Queensland explains. (Ironically, TBIs also are a frequent effect of domestic violence.) This coupled with PTSD can be a lethal combination. Help Starts Here, a site run by social workers, discusses other consequences of PTSD and TBI, such as substance abuse and homelessness.

This especially concerns me, as I myself am a TBI survivor. I sustained a TBI in a car v bike accident. Obviously the health professionals who stabilized me after the accident deserve much credit, but in the long term, immediate screening for brain injury and immediate access to TBI rehabilitation professionals made the most difference in my recovery. As I was being discharged, one neurologist wheeled me from my room to the TBI rehab facility in the hospital and had me signed up. I was confused and disoriented, and neither I nor my parents would have known to go there if not for that doctor. A veterans group also identifies face to face assessments as a major, pressing need:

Tom Tarantino, a policy associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who served as an Army platoon leader in Iraq in 2005, said careful assessment of head injuries was especially important in decisions on redeployment. “Our highest mental health priority right now is to have face-to-face assessments done, by professionals, after redeployment.”

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Anglican Anti-Communion being formed

Anglican conservatives in the United States, led by the former Bishop Robert Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, are attempting to form a separate Anglican province in the United States. Beliefnet's Religion News Service has a report.

In Anglican polity, provinces are analogous to countries. Churches following episcopal polity have not, broadly speaking, recognized multiple provinces existing in the same geographic location. Among Anglicans, there are no clear mechanisms to recognize a competing province in the U.S. A number of conservative provinces and Anglican leaders will recognize the new province. However, it is likely that the Archbishop of Canterbury will not. It's also likely that a two thirds majority of the Anglican Consultative Council will not. Those are two of four instruments of unity. If the conservatives could get those two to recognize a new province, they would win.

At this point, it seems likely to me that Anglican conservatives will form an Anti-Communion. Except that there are fracture lines (Evangelical vs Anglo-Catholic, women's ordination), and the Anti-Communion may well start falling apart as well.

If our friends in the Anti-Communion face such difficulties, I will have little to no sympathy. However, Anglicanism is one of the major global churches. These repeated fractures may weaken my tradition's ability to witness to the world. It may inhibit the church's financial commitment to development and its connections to people doing important work on the ground in Asia and Africa. By choosing to fracture the Communion, the actions of the schismatics make us all poorer. They diminish our church's diversity and moral standing.

All this begs the question: when the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Anti-Communion meet, will they annihilate in a flash of gamma rays?
Robert Stern, professor of business at New York University's Stern School of Business, opposes federal aid to Chrysler. On his blog, he makes the argument that

Although I am not opposed to the idea of providing aid to the auto manufacturers, there is a difference between an investment and an expense. Injecting capital into GM and Ford represents more of an investment. An injection of capital into Chrysler would represent nothing more than an expense.

Ford and GM are on stronger footing than Chrysler in terms of design, quality, operations, global footprint, and so on. Therefore, the plight of GM and Ford bear greater resemblance to a liquidity problem. By providing capital to those two firms, we are making an investment in firms whose products are more fundamentally sound, but that find themselves temporally underfunded. The money would therefore help tide them over until the crisis abates.

By contrast, Chrysler is closer to insolvency than its larger brethren (see Is the End Nigh for Chrysler for details). Any money invested in Chrysler is therefore likely only to delay the inevitable. Moreover, Chrysler is less systemically important than either Ford or GM. It is not even 1/3rd the size of Ford. It’s owners are not dispersed individuals and institutions to which many American pensions are tied. Rather, it is owned by Cerberus, a private investment firm. This raises another issue - whether the use of taxpayer money to bail out Cerberus, a private investment company that was the poster-boy for excess during the credit-fueled private equity binge, is justified in the first place.

For all these reasons (and more), the U.S. taxpayer would be better served making an investment in GM and Ford, and leaving Chrysler to its own devices.

In another post, on the investing website Seeking Alpha, he argues that

As far as I am concerned, Cerberus should be left to reap what it has sown. If it wants money to invest in Chrysler, it should do so itself, or find private sources of external funding.

Sure enough, Cerberus has engaged in its own method of crying for capital. First, Cerberus offered to forgo profit on its investment should the U.S. government inject capital into Chrysler (see A Benevolent Cerberus). Next, Cerberus tried to assign blame for Chrysler’s fiasco to Daimler (see Cerberus Claims It was Misled, …hat tip Tom). According to the Connecticut Post:

Relations between Chrysler’s current and former owners turned ugly Wednesday when private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP accused Daimler AG of “intentionally and materially” misleading Cerberus before the German automaker sold Chrysler last year. [editor: the Connecticut Post article that Salomon quotes is dated 11/26/08 - no more than a couple weeks ago.]

These tactics are not only transparent, but reek of desperation. The company is attempting to mask the true, underlying problem: Cerberus made a lousy investment in a severely troubled auto manufacturer.

In my opinion therefore, before the taxpayer seriously considers an injection of capital into Chrysler, Cerberus’s investment ought to be completely wiped out. That would only happen in bankruptcy. Then, and only then, might the U.S. taxpayer reconsider.

In addition to his argument about structural importance (e.g. GM's collapse would have profound national implications), Salomon seems to be making a bit of an ethical distinction between Ford and GM, which are owned by public shareholders, and Chrysler, which is owned by a private for-profit company. I'm not sure that the distinction is worth drawing - whoever invested in GM or Ford also made a lousy investment and doesn't deserve to be rescued by the government.

Incidentally, Businessweek has an article on how private equity companies essentially "strangled" Mervyns, a retailer, with a series of bad decisions. Private equity firms purchased the firm and then sold the real estate. The retailer had once owned its stores, but now had to rent the real estate from the new owners. Unfortunately, the rents were double what the old mortgage payments were.

The private equity shops split Mervyns into two companies, one holding the real estate and the other operating the stores. This way, they profited off the real estate. However, they had to cut costs drastically at the retail operation, which is now filing for bankruptcy. They also laid off a number of employees suddenly and without severance packages. In addition, there were three firms involved in the buyout, and the way they structured the deal caused competing incentives that prevented them from acting expeditiously to save the retailer, or at least liquidate it in an orderly fashion. I should emphasize, though, that Mervyns wasn't doing all that well. It may well have gone into bankruptcy if left to its own devices.

This is not to suggest that this is typical of all private equity buyouts. However, it's worth mentioning because Cerberus was one of the firms involved in the buyout, although they later sold their stake to one of their partners. If this behavior is typical of private equity firms, then perhaps this is part of what's driving Salomon's additional hostility to Cerberus. Of course, I'm not exactly very sympathetic to Cerberus either.

What road ahead for the Big 3: Morningstar's take

David Whiston, a Morningstar analyst, gives hig take on the auto industry's restructuring plan.

He feels that the Big 3 are finally facing up to the fact that they have to cut a lot of their redundant brands - it's the only way to survive.

The UAW is likely to cooperate with this. They may consent to a new round of buyouts. They also agreed to let GM delay funding the VEBA (Voluntary Employee Benefit Agreement - the health care fund that the UAW is running on behalf of members) and to suspend the jobs bank (an insane agreement crafted in much better times where workers who can't get an assignment can collect most or all of their pay while waiting for a new one, if it ever comes).

Whiston feels that a bankruptcy for the automakers would eventually lead to a liquidation, which would be disastrous to the economy. He feels that this would cause the US to lose its manufacturing edge. He does feel that the restructuring plan the auto industry is proposing is the right move, and that Ford has the best management team of the Big 3. However, the government needs to move right now, or else it will be too late. That said, the new government will almost certainly need to provide additional aid to the automakers in 2009.

I guess it's either aid the automakers or aid the displaced workers. However, I would argue to Whiston that GM, Ford and Chrysler aren't simply their management teams. The auto industry has a long established culture of groupthink and complacency. Ford clearly is in the best financial position, so if we agree that their management team is that good, then perhaps my suggestion should stand: aid Ford, and force GM and Chrysler to reorganize in bankruptcy. GM and Chrysler might well be unable to restructure sufficiently. Appointing an auto czar as the government proposes is no guarantee that the government will be able to ensure the automakers restructure appropriately. I wouldn't oppose keeping GM and Chrysler on life support so they can file bankruptcy in better times, but they may not have what it takes to be successful businesses in the long term.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The 7 worst ways to rescue Detroit

Word is that the 3 automakers have submitted their plans to the US Congress and that a completed proposal and a vote are close. GM is in the most dire straits. Chrysler and GM require immediate cash or else they may face bankruptcy. Ford may be being overly optimistic, but they didn't request an immediate loan, only a line of credit - in other words, Ford's death isn't imminent.

An article on MSN Money argues that, among other things, Congress shouldn't treat all the automakers identically.

They're not alike, and an up-or-down vote on GM, Ford and Chrysler as one monolith would be a clumsy way to spend taxpayer dollars.

Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's Big Three, appears to be in the worst financial shape, with a thin margin of cash to see it through the rest of the year. It also has the weakest lineup of cars and few announced future products -- signs that management is hunkering down and preparing for some kind of merger or even liquidation.

In other words, Chrysler isn't cutting it as a stand-alone automaker. "Chrysler is the only one of the three that could go out of business without having a huge domino effect," says analyst David Silver of the research firm Wall Street Strategies. It's also owned by the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, run by billionaire Stephen Feinberg.

GM and Ford are both public companies committed to long-range plans, but their needs are different. GM is desperate for cash and says it needs help now. Ford is further along in its turnaround plan, and CEO Alan Mulally says the company doesn't need any federal loans at the moment.

An across-the-board bailout of all three would commit taxpayer money to at least one company, Ford, which might do OK without it. And it would represent another unprecedented move: the bailout of a private-equity firm, whose principals earn way more than an overpaid CEO.

Better: Establish standardized ground rules that treat each automaker according to its business prospects, not its political connections or some dubious place in American lore. If it turns out that GM is a good risk but Chrysler isn't, then let Chrysler go. The government may have to pick winners and losers.

If you accept this guy's conclusions, the US government might be best advised to assist Ford, and to let GM and Chrysler reorganize in bankruptcy.

The article also warns against indirectly penalizing Detroit's competitors:

As the Detroit automakers have been complaining about everything that's wrong, a new Detroit has been taking root, mostly in an arc of the South that ranges from South Carolina to Texas. Virtually all of those plants belong to foreign automakers, including Toyota Motor (TM, news, msgs), BMW (BAMFX, news, msgs) and Nissan (NSANY, news, msgs), but they employ thousands of Americans as executives, managers and blue-collar workers.

They're also some of the most efficient auto factories in the nation, often able to switch from one model to another based on what products are most popular. And they buy lots of made-in-America parts.

Any incentives or other policies that stifle demand for cars from such "transplant" factories would undermine one of the healthiest parts of the U.S. manufacturing base.

Better: Consider more incentives to lure foreign automakers to the United States, and make the New Detroit even stronger. Sooner or later, it might be the only Detroit we have left.

HIV/AIDS awareness week

I'm back from a bit of a Thanksgiving hiatus, and now it's HIV/AIDS awareness week. Panels of the AIDS memorial quilt are on display all over the United States, including some at local churches.

The Toledo Blade briefly describes the quilt:
The memorial quilt, which started in 1987, is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world and includes more than 40,000 panels to remember those who died from AIDS. Each section is about 12 square feet and consista of eight 3-foot-by-6-foot panels sewn together.

In the United States, the disease first manifested itself among injecting drug users and gay men. The AIDS epidemic officially began, as Wikipedia describes, in the U.S. in 1981, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) caused by a form of Pneumocystis carinii (now recognized as a distinct species Pneumocystis jirovecii) in five homosexual men in Los Angeles.

Gay men at the time were nearly universally seen as deviant. As a result, there were few organized public efforts to effectively treat the disease. And then, Ryan White, a straight hemophiliac teenager from Indiana who was infected by a blood transfusion brought a different face to the disease. He died from it. However, he also gave the U.S. one of its well-intentioned but ultimately piecemeal health policies, the Ryan White Care Act, that provides federal funding for un- and under-insured victims of the disease.

In contrast, Singapore has a national catastrophic health insurance scheme called Medishield. All working adults pay into the scheme, which covers major hospitalizations and prolonged illnesses. However, it does not cover treatment for HIV/AIDS. Medifund, which is a government-run safety net scheme, also does not cover antiretroviral drugs.

HIV/AIDS is a terrible disease. If untreated it can destroy lives. The stigma associated with the disease and with sexuality basically ensures that the disease will continue to spread and that many people with the disease will remain untreated. By killing people in the primes of their lives, it has a disproportionate impact on national productivity.

And yet, conservatives in the United States continue to insist on abstinence only sex education. They refuse to allow homosexuality to be discussed in public schools. They insist that US funding for international health programs follow the same goals - the President's Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (PEPFAR) started by George Bush mandated that one third of its funding go to abstinence education programs, which are widely regarded to be ineffective.

The facts on the ground are that people will have sex before they are married. Migrant laborers away from their homes may be more likely to use prostitutes. For some women, prostitution is how they feed their children. We should be morally outraged at human trafficking. We should not approve of people cheating on their spouses. But we Christians, in our public acts, should focus on treating the disease first.

Christians mark this as the first week of Advent, where we wait expectantly and prepare diligently for the coming of Jesus Christ. There will be no deus ex machina to save us from HIV/AIDS. There is much hard work to be done on the ground, educating people and distributing life-saving medication. Jesus, when he walked the earth, ate with sinners and outcasts. Let us not be afraid to do the same.