Thursday, January 29, 2009

Global warming: We're cooked

A CNN Money article covers the global warming talks at Davos, which have been completely eclipsed by the financial crisis.

The average American emits 20 tons of CO2 every year. Scientists estimate that the world average will have to drop to 2 tons a year by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Right there, we already have a problem - there's no way to avoid global warming effects completely.

The US and China are the world's two problems. China wants the living standards of the US. They will need to rely on coal for a large part of the energy mix necessary to sustain those living standards, which will be disastrous. If the US, which is the world's current largest energy hog, doesn't show any leadership, then the Chinese will do nothing. They will probably continue doing nothing when they're the world's largest energy hog, and then the US cutting its emissions won't have the same weight.

So, the US has to cut emissions now. However, there might not be the political will to do so.

But Frances Beinecke, the head of New York City-based environmental group the National Resources Defense Council, threw some cold water on Stern's optimism, pointing out the economic crisis in America has made any sort of climate change agreement in the U.S. - at least for the time being - politically untenable. "Americans don't want to hear about climate change," says Beinecke, "they want to hear about jobs."

The American coal industry, one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, has been lobbying hard on Capital Hill for more coal mining and coal plants as a way to create jobs. Beinecke says that the coal industry has the ear of a powerful group of senators from coal producing states, and without their support, the passage of any climate treaty coming out of Copenhagen seems nearly impossible - at least until the economy turns around.

America, please prove me wrong.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Ponzi schemes come to light

The NY Times reports that with the stock market downturn and Bernie Madoff's arrest, more Ponzi schemes are coming to light as investors try to withdraw their money.

None are as spectacular as Madoff - that guy might not even have been caught if not for the subprime mess.

But one case caught my eye.

And in Florida, not far from the Palm Beach clubs where Mr. Madoff wooed some of his investors, George L. Theodule, a Haitian immigrant and professed “man of God,” promised churchgoers in a Haitian-American community that he could double their money within 90 days.

He accepted only cash, and despite the too-good-to-be-true sales pitch, he found plenty of investors willing to turn over tens of thousands of dollars.

“The offices were beautiful, and I was told it was a limited liability corporation,” said Reggie Roseme, a deliveryman in Wellington, Fla., who lost his entire savings of $35,000 and now faces foreclosure on his home.

According to federal regulators who have accused him of operating a Ponzi scheme, Mr. Theodule bilked thousands of investors of modest means, like Mr. Roseme, out of $23 million in all, and put $4 million in his own pocket. This money helped pay for two luxury vehicles for Mr. Theodule, a wedding, a lavish house in Georgia and a recent trip to Zurich that federal authorities are now investigating. The fate of the other $19 million is still unknown.


In the South Florida Haitian-American community, Mr. Theodule turned to churches. But his scheme fell apart in November when 40 investors showed up at Mr. Theodule’s office to try to get their money back.

“Theodule had been the king and lived in the community, and then one day he vanished,” said Mr. Roseme, the investor who lost $35,000 in savings.

He described Mr. Theodule as “friendly, someone you could trust, a real positive guy.”

Nerline Horace-Manasse, a 31-year-old Haitian immigrant with six children, saw her life’s savings of $25,000 disappear.

Statements showed her money had grown to $90,000, but when Ms. Manasse asked questions of Mr. Theodule, “he advised he could not tell me where he was putting the money because there were a lot of copycats out there and he’d go out of business.”

Now Ms. Manasse and Mr. Roseme are part of a class-action suit against Mr. Theodule.

Mr. Theodule’s attorney, Matthew N. Thibaut, did not return a call for comment. But in court papers, Mr. Theodule said, “Theodule admits he has told persons that he wants to help build wealth in the Haitian community.”

Close knit communities, especially if they're immigrant and/or racial minority communities, may be especially vulnerable to affinity fraud of various sorts. The people of Detroit, for example, rallied strongly behind the now-disgraced ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for years, even though everyone else knew he was a crook; Detroit is largely African-American, as is Kwame.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pope's revocation of excommunication of SSPX bishops may have broader ecumenical/interfaith implications

The NY Times has a report on some reactions within and without the Roman Catholic Church to Pope Benedict's revocation of the excommunication of four bishops. The four were members of the Society of Saint Pius X, which was formed in opposition to Vatican II reforms (I think a big one was the use of the vernacular in the Mass). If Pope Benedict does not take steps to address issues in the wider world, the non-Catholics have significant reason to be worried about him. As it is, Catholic adherents of liberation theology have many reasons to be furious, as discussed in the article - unless he takes steps to reconcile with them also.

That Benedict apparently did not widely discuss a matter that has provoked anger among Jewish groups and liberal Catholics was not out of character, however. It was just the latest example of how the pope is increasingly focused on internal doctrinal issues and seemingly unaware of how they might resonate in the larger world.

As such, it perfectly captured the theological aspirations — and political shortcomings — of his four-year-old papacy.

In 2007, Benedict approved broader use of the Latin Mass, a reform sought by the same traditionalists he has now reinstated, but one seen by many in the church as divisive. The year before, the pope angered Muslims when he cited a medieval scholar who said that Islam brought things “evil and inhuman,” and he was seemingly ill prepared for the repercussions. He later apologized.

Again this weekend, a doctrinal question exploded into a global polemic. Benedict’s decision to extend an olive branch to the four men was apparently born from a deep personal and theological desire to heal the only schism in the Roman Catholic Church in a century.

On Saturday, he said he would welcome back into the fold the four members of a sect founded in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The bishops are members of the St. Pius X Society, which was founded in 1970 by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in opposition to Vatican II reforms. They were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 after Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated them in unsanctioned ceremonies.

The most contentious of the four is the British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who in a recent television interview said he thought the “historical evidence” was against six million Jews dying in Nazi gas chambers.

Some saw the pope’s decision as part of a trend, or at least an indication of his priorities.

“There is obviously a theological strategy, but the repercussions on the public opinion field beyond the church are obviously only secondary in priority,” said Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican.

The move baffled Alberto Melloni, a professor of church history and the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, which produced a history of Vatican II. “What is very inexplicable to me is how it’s possible to not calculate the consequences. This is abnormal,” he said.

The Society of St. Pius X does not appear to have issued any public statements on Bishop Williamson’s views on the Holocaust. But the society has never been welcoming toward other faiths.

Jewish leaders said the pope’s decision was a setback. “It’s a very serious situation,” said Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. He said the tenets of Lefebvrism were as worrisome as Bishop Williamson’s personal views.

Rabbi di Segni said he did not know what the next chapter would bring. “I don’t know what kind of resolution there can be at this point,” he said.

In a public statement, the Vatican said Saturday that the revocation was a step toward full reconciliation with the Lefebvrists and that further talks would seek to resolve the “open questions.”

Other liberal critics said the pope’s decision to welcome the Lefebvrists showed that he was more willing to embrace schismatic conservatives than wayward leftists.

In his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict censured many left-leaning prelates, including ones adhering to the Marxist-inflected Liberation Theology movement popular in Latin America.

“I would be happy if the pope would be for reconciliation, especially also for people on the progressive side,” said Hans Küng, a professor of theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany, who has for decades been Benedict’s most formidable critic on the left. A Catholic priest, Father Küng was forbidden by the church to teach theology.

The revocation seemed to move the papacy further toward intellectual concerns rather than the daily lives of Catholics. Under Benedict, the church “risks becoming a Vatican hierarchy disincarnated from faith,” said Ezio Mauro, the editor of the center-left daily La Repubblica, who writes on church-state issues.

Father Küng agreed. Benedict “does not see that he is alienating himself from the larger part of the Catholic Church and Christianity,” he said. “He doesn’t see the real world. He only sees the Vatican world.”

Nashville, Tennessee voters reject English-only proposal

Voters in Nashville voted against a proposal that would make English the official language and prevent government workers from communicating in other languages.

The only disappointment was that 43.5% of voters voted in favor. Can 43.5% of the population of Nashville be that stupid?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Another perspective on Roe v Wade

Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton has another reflection on the anniversary of Roe v Wade, as a then-Roman Catholic.

Later that evening, I came back to see her for our nightly drink. For as long as I could remember, she and my grandfather had a glass of brandy or schnapps (apricot was her favorite) before they went to bed. These days, she warmed it and put it in her evening latte - her own "dessert coffee".

She poured me a glass of wine. Red. "Good for the baby's blood. Good to build up your milk for the baby." Bad for fetal alcohol syndrome, but we didn't know about that then, so we had no worries.

I asked her about abortion. What she thought about the decision of the Supreme Court. What that meant to her.

It was then she told me about a friend of her's with whom she shared a room when she worked as a domestic in Boston in the early days of her immigration to this country.

The girl had been flattered into having an affair with one of the sons in the house - one she thought loved her and would marry her. Until, of course, she got pregnant. Then, he gave her some money and took her to a man near Chinatown who would, he said, "take care of everything."

She died three days later of an infection and bleeding that could not be stopped.

My grandmother looked around to be certain that no one was around and then she whispered to me, "The Supreme Court did a very good thing for women today," she said. "It is not something that should be used carelessly, but only when necessary."

"But," I said, "what about the Church? They say it's murder and its a sin and you will burn in hell for eternity."

A look of revulsion came over her face, "Yes, yes, that's what they want us to believe. But then, every year on the fourth of July, they dress men up in uniforms and parade them down the street and everyone cheers because they have killed - they have killed many men and women - some of whom are pregnant - as well as their living children. And everybody cheers and Father blesses them with Holy Water when they march by because they have done these things in the 'name of God'."

"When it is convenient for them, it is okay," she hissed, "but they would rather protect and defend the lies men tell than to allow her to make a decision about her own body, her own life, her own future, in the name of God."

It was then that I heard for the first time what I would later see in posters supporting the decision of Roe v. Wade. The logic is so simple as to be considered simplistic, but there is also great wisdom inherent it the logic.

My grandmother said, "If you don't want to have an abortion, don't have one." Then, she added, "But, if a woman needs to have an abortion, that is between her heart and God, and no one - NO ONE - should make that decision for her or have the right to take away her right to make that decision for herself."

Reflections on Anglo-Catholicism

Today, I visited Saint Paul's Parish on K Street, an Episcopal church in Washington DC that is known for being particularly Anglo-Catholic. The Ship of Fools has a Mystery Worshipper review of that church here. St. P's has been described as "about as high as high church can get." Indeed, the only way they could get any higher church would be to do the Mass in Latin.

The liturgy was particularly striking to me since I was raised Evangelical. Since then, I have learned some high church customs through being in the Episcopal Church. While my fundamental beliefs about ecclesiology (how the church should structure itself) are very Evangelical, I do like the occasional high church liturgy.

St. P's had a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham, an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the UK. This apparition is celebrated by both Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics. To be honest, while I bowed while passing the shrine, I do not acknowledge that Mary was a Virgin, and I acknowledge no apparition of Mary except for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Evangelicals have traditionally maintained anti-Papist attitudes that condemn Mariolatry, some of which I suppose affect me. Mary is an integral part of the Christian tradition, but I really do not subscribe to the teaching that Mary was a virgin. It has been used in ways that are dangerous to human sexuality.

St. P's also addresses its priests as Father. I will not address any priest as Father. Unless they are a woman.

As an aside, K Street is a major thoroughfare where a lot of lobbying firms are located. It is a metonym for the US lobbying industry and its often malign influence.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama reverses restrictions on US abortion aid

The new President repealed the Mexico City Policy or Global Gag Rule, which bars the US from providing aid to any organizations that educate about elective abortions or conduct them. The rule had been passed by Reagan, repealed by Clinton and reinstated by Bush. Organizations would have to pledge to abide by the rule or lose funding and access to contraceptive supplies.

This rule barred funding from organizations like Planned Parenthood, which provide elective abortions in addition to a wide range of other reproductive health services. The Population Council estimates that there are 19 million unsafe abortions a year, many of which are probably elective. Population Council offers a snapshot of how the gag rule impeded family planning operations in Ethopia.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama signs executive order to close Guantanamo within a year

President Obama has ordered that Guantanamo prison be closed within one year.

This does leave unanswered questions about how detainees will be tried. It is also true that one of the detainees who was released, Said al-Shiri, is suspected in the bombing of the US embassy in Yemen last September. The US does need to safeguard itself. While I believe that detainees should either be tried or released immediately, there is no denying that some of these people are very, very dangerous people.

That said, in the long run, the US does itself more damage to detain them unjustly, without regard to human rights and without actual charges. The conservatives who would have the US secretly imprison and torture - yes, I said torture - these people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the damage that this has done to the United States' international standing. It would be better to release even the al-Queda members and then to guard against their attacks.

Genesis 18:32
Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’

Here, God is proposing to annihilate Sodom (i.e. to commit genocide for their alleged evildoings). Lot bargains with God, starting by asking if 50 righteous people are found in the city, will God reconsider? God agrees. In fact, God allows Lot to talk Him/Her down to 10. To follow Genesis 18, the US should err heavily on the side of releasing detainees.

A number of writers discuss the detainee situation in an editorial page, with one writer calling for the creation of a national security court to be held on military bases. Neither the military system nor the civilian criminal justice system are appropriate for handling actual terrorists, who are paramilitary. That's fine with me. But the US cannot continue to hold people without trial. At this point, the US has to release immediately all detainees it cannot show sufficient evidence against. That evidence must be reviewed and challenged. If there is evidence to prosecute, the prosecutions can be done in a hybrid national security court system. But again, unjustly holding the Guantanamo detainees any longer is a stain on the country's record. Neither God nor history will judge this kindly if it continues.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anniversary of Roe v Wade and abortion protest at the US Capitol

I had forgotten that today is the anniversary of Roe v Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the United States. I was on my way to the Capitol to cover an event for the health policy group at a think tank I work for and saw a number of male priests in collars on the trains. I also ended up wading through a number of protesters.

President Obama supports the right to have an abortion. There are at most 4 justices on the US Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v Wade if a legal challenge were mounted. Several of the more liberal justices will retire but Obama would likely appoint justices who would retain the ruling. Abortion foes are not happy.

In some ways, the focus solely on abortion misses the fact that people need access to a full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health services, including comprehensive education and contraception. Pro-choice people would like to find common ground with pro-lifers in reducing the number of abortions that have to be performed.

One Congressman who spoke said that he would either introduce a bill to bar federal funding to Planned Parenthood, or would oppose any bills that gave federal funding to that organization (I can't remember his exact words). Planned Parenthood provides health education services, women's and men's health services, LGBT related services, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception and birth control services. All these reduce the need for abortion services. Additionally, Planned Parenthood has an obligation to serve people without regard to insurance status. It is a safety net for poor women (albeit there are growing concerns that its services for the uninsured are becoming too expensive, possibly because they aren't receiving enough funding). Without safety net services, poor women would be at higher risk of teen and unplanned pregnancy.

The Roman Catholic position that sex must be for the purpose of procreation is not grounded in Scripture. Their opposition to condoms is not grounded in reality; indeed, Catholics working on the ground with AIDS victims are increasingly advocating for condom use. The reality is that people all over the world have sex. Many of them do so before marriage, or, unfortunately, behind the back of a married partner. Churches should not make themselves enemies of the public health. They should absolutely promote their standards for sexual behavior among their own membership, so long as such standards are reasonable. But they certainly should not promote unreasonable standards, or worse try to force those standards on everyone else.

There's no such thing as clean coal

While in the Metro Center station in Washington today, I saw an excellent series of advertisements that said "there's no such thing as clean coal." The advertising campaign featured shots an alien, a gorilla and a scantily clad woman holding up lumps of coal, plus posters with the slogan.

I'm not sure what the alien, gorilla and scantily clad woman had to do with anything. But there really is no such thing as clean coal. The phrase was invoked by candidates on both parties during the election. However, coal mining is dangerous and destructive to miners' health and the environment.

Converting coal to liquid fuels also releases a lot of CO2. The resulting fuels may burn more cleanly, but the total CO2 emissions greater than just burning gasoline or diesel. NOx and SOx emissions from coal plants can be mitigated with technology; I understand that Fuel Tech (FTEK on the NASDAQ, disclosure: I own shares of the company) has cost effective technology to mitigate these emissions and also to mitigate slag buildup in power plants. However, that cannot possibly overcome the loss of human life and environmental damage caused by coal mining, not to mention the CO2 emissions.

Aside from praying for miners worldwide, we need to be cognizant that coal plants constitute a significant share of the energy generation mix in the US, China and India. The US can reduce the percentage of coal power it uses, but elimination of coal plants is quite some time off even if maximum effort were devoted to this. In China and India, the situation is worse because coal is cheap and those countries are industrializing rapidly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Sexting" surprise: teens face child porn charges

MSNBC reports that six high school students in Pennsylvania face child pornography-related criminal charges. Three girls took nude photos of themselves on their own cellphones and sent them on to three boys. The girls are 14-15 years old, the boys are 16-17.

The prosecutor argues that the photos could easily make their way onto the Internet, where they would then really be child porn.

However, the fact remains that those photos did not get onto the Net.

Some American children are clearly pushing the boundaries too far. I think people with a healthy attitude toward sex should clearly be worried about 'sexting', especially at that age.

However, clearly, the prosecutor involved doesn't have a healthy attitude towards sex. If convicted, these teenagers would have to register as sex offenders for up to 10 years. Again, the photographs in question did not find their way onto the Internet. This is a clear case of overkill.

Europeans in general seem to have healthier attitudes towards sex than Americans. It would be interesting to hear about the prevalence of 'sexting' in Europe and to find out what school authorities and law enforcement are doing there.

Return of the Natives

In an NY Times blog post, Timothy Egan describes the sense of hope among Native Americans that President Obama brings.

SALT RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Ariz. — Nearly 50 years ago, a Pima native took a Greyhound bus from this sun-roasted redoubt of Indian land to the winter chill of Washington, D.C.,to witness the first day of a young American president.

“When he came home, my father was so excited because John Kennedy stood up for him when he walked by him in the parade,” said Diane Enos. “The president stood up for an Indian! He couldn’t stop talking about that.”

Next week, Diane Enos will make the same trip, along with hundreds of other American Indians who hope that Barack Obama’s inauguration will bring the wind of possiblity to Indian Country.

In less than a week’s time, the Great White Father will be black. Amidst the euphoria and stirring of fresh ideas, there remains some suspicion.

“He’s still a politician and I’m still an Indian,” said Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning writer, a Spokane and Coeur d’Alene native.

“They all look like treaty-makers to me,” said Alexie, paraphrasing the native musician, John Trudell. “I guess that’s the puzzling and I suppose lovely thing about Indians’ love of Obama. Many have suspended their natural suspicion of politicians for him.”

So often, they are invisible, these first Americans, or frozen in iconic images of the past. We see them in Curtis prints and Remington poses, or hear something attributed to them in New Age spiritual circles. Cool, Indians.

And then a new casino opens off the interstate or a pottery exhibit is unveiled, and we realize: ah yes, they’re with us still.

With Obama’s rise, Indians have allowed themselves to dream — some, even to fall in love. He was adopted into an Indian family in Montana last May, given the name “Barack Black Eagle” by the Crow Nation.

When asked about immigration concerns in New Mexico, Obama pointed to a handful of elderly natives in the front row of a high school gym.

“He said, ‘The only real native people in this country are sitting right in front of me,’ ” recalled Joe Garcia, who is president of the National Congress of American Indians. “You should have heard the applause.”

The epic struggle for natives has been to avoid getting washed away by the flood of dominant culture, where Indians make up less than 2 percent of more than 300 million Americans.

That, and the physical toll that losing this big land has taken on them. Indians die younger than most other Americans, suffer from higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, debilitating dietary problems.

The Pimas, who hold to this 52,000-acre homeland amidst the predatory sprawl of 4.2 million people here in the Phoenix metro area, have one of the world’s highest rates of type 2 diabetes — a consequence of the rough adjustment from their world to one handed down by Europeans.

Presidents come and go. They promise to uphold treaty rights and appoint somebody to oversee Indian affairs who understands that history did not end when Custer fell to his hubris. It’s ho-hum, usually, with a mournful shrug on the reservations.

But on the most recent Election Day, on the Navajo Rez, which spills into three states and is the size of West Virginia, high school kids held up Obama signs at intersections in the town of Window Rock, and cheered themselves hoarse as returns came in.

“I feel very elated,” said Joe Shirley, Jr., president of the Navajo Nation. “All of Navajo Country came out strong for Obama.”

Shirley says nearly half of Navajo families heat their homes with wood they cut themselves, drink water hauled into their homes in barrels and light their rooms with kerosene lamps.

Talk about stimulus: a billion dollars, one-seven-hundredth of what taxpayers are giving the financial institutions that caused the Crash of 2008, could bring much of Navajo land into the modern age, Shirley said.

But beyond the desire for urgent, fundamental infrastructure help, Indians look to Obama as a powerful narrative. People who were subjugated, with near-genocidal brutality, feel a kinship with people who were first brought here in chains, even though Obama is an immigrant’s son.

“There’s a bond there,” said Shirley. “Birds of a feather flock together. We try to teach that there are no impossibilities to Navajo people. His election speaks to the young especially.”

Cynicism is the poison of so many young people. In Indian Country, where despair is often woven into the landscape, it takes hold even earlier.

So when Diane Enos, who is president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, arrives in the festive capital next week she will have a teenage tribal leader with her.

“Obama’s life has been a journey to find identity,” she said. “That’s the Indian stuggle. And it starts with children.”

On Inauguration Day, the capital will host the likes of Ludacris and Chaka Khan, corporate titans and political giants, and balls too numerous to count.

Among the sea of Americans ushering in the president will be a small contingent of people who have clung to this continent longer than any other. And for once — if only for a January moment — they will feel like they belong.

A solution to the coming 'card check' battle

A tad long but worth reading.

BOSTON (Fortune) -- Barack Obama comes to Washington carrying a load of hopes and dreams, none more ardent than organized labor's. Item No. 1 on the AFL-CIO's legislative agenda: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as the card-check bill. Simply put, EFCA would streamline the process by which employees could decide to join a union. In most cases, a simple majority of signed cards would suffice; no need for a full-blown election sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board.

The bill's supporters (mostly Democrats) say it goes a long way toward restoring balance and fairness in an arena where employers routinely use bully tactics to crush unions. Opponents - mostly Republicans but also George McGovern, of all people, who came out against EFCA last summer in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal - insist instead that it erodes democracy by discouraging secret-ballot elections.

Noble sentiments on both sides, but let's get real. EFCA is about power. Labor is determined to reverse decades of declining union membership. Management is determined to protect its gains. The stakes are high, the line is drawn. It's going to be a nasty fight.

But it doesn't have to be that way, according to two improbably coupled labor-war veterans with a bold idea for compromise. The two come from opposite sides of the divide. Richard Bensinger, former organizing director for the AFL-CIO, believes that EFCA would be a big improvement over current law. His friend, Dick Schubert, former president and vice chairman of Bethlehem Steel and general counsel for the Labor Department during the Nixon and Ford administrations, disagrees. Surprise, surprise.

But instead of butting heads, Schubert and Bensinger are pushing a fascinating alternative that they cooked up together - a third way that aims to "box everybody in a little bit," says Bensinger. "We're trying to create a space where maybe no one's really that comfortable. But isn't that maybe more fair?"

While Schubert's a management guy, he's not anti-union, which makes a difference. All four of his grandparents arrived in the U.S. from Eastern Europe with no English and no education. One grandmother worked in a cigar factory in Trenton, N.J., for $3 a week. "The fact that there was a union movement kept pressure on employers to treat them better," Schubert says during an interview in the paneled den of his townhouse in McLean, Va. (Dick Cheney used to live next door.) "I have a strong feeling that the union movement is relevant, even though at Bethlehem Steel I was negotiating against the union that was trying to break the company, frankly, in terms of their exorbitant demands." He pauses for a beat. "I just thought I'd throw that in."

"No comment," says Bensinger, smiling in the corner, looking kind of scruffy in his blue jeans and his purple union windbreaker. Bensinger is a cult figure in the labor movement, a skilled and passionate organizer who lost his big job at the AFL-CIO in 1998, many believe, only because he took it too seriously. He embarrassed union bosses by demanding they commit more resources to recruiting new members and fewer to featherbedding.

No one is accusing Bensinger of having mellowed since then. But over the last decade he has shown a growing willingness to talk to the other side. "I think there are CEOs - I've met some - who do want to do the right thing." One vehicle for such conversations is the Institute for Employee Choice, which he co-founded with Schubert in 2002.

It's not a new set of laws that Bensinger and Schubert are proposing, it's a code of conduct, strictly voluntary, by which both sides would agree to abide during the run-up to an election. Twelve principles, all deriving from the last one, which paraphrases the Golden Rule: "Unions and employers need to behave as they would like the other to behave." Sounds simple. But as you know if you've ever been part of a union organizing drive, on either side, it's a radical concept.

The first few principles cover the basics: No lying, no threats and no promises conditioned on support for your position. Some of that's already covered by current law, sort of. For example, employers are not allowed to promise raises in exchange for votes because that would be a bribe (although unions, for some reason, can promise whatever they want); and neither party is allowed to make explicit threats.

The problem with laws is that they're lousy at regulating ethical behavior. Over the years, employers (and to some extent unions, too) have gotten very good at walking right up to the line without crossing over. "There are a lot of things a company can do within the four corners of the law," says Washington labor lawyer David Fortney of Fortney Scott, who runs union-avoidance campaigns. The principles acknowledge that imbalance but call on both sides to straighten up and act right. Or as Bensinger puts it, "Behave in a way you wouldn't be embarrassed to explain to your kids."

Other principles address specific tactics that the law overlooks but which can interfere with employees' ability to make up their minds in a "free, fair and informed way." For the unions, that means no stuffing the payroll with union organizers in advance of an election, a practice known as salting. And no hardball corporate campaigns aimed at rousing public sympathy for the cause. ("Democratic principles require that employees be the ones to decide whether they want a union or not.")

Employers, for their part, must agree not to engage in delay tactics, which can postpone elections for years. Mandatory meetings on company time are out. ("The right of free speech does not include the right to force anyone to listen to you.") Debates are in. ("The most effective way for voters to make a clear choice is to hear both points of view at one event, where each side can respond to the other.") And when it comes time to choose? Card check is okay, as long as both parties agree. But the "better way," Bensinger and Schubert stress - assuming the campaign has been conducted ethically - is a secret-ballot election.

"The crux of the issue Richard and Dick face with their principles is the willingness of one side to step forward and endorse them ahead of the other side," says David Pace, former head of HR for Starbucks. Pace admires the principles, in theory. "Generally speaking, they hold up to ethical and moral review," he says. "The greater stumbling block becomes a willingness to expose a vulnerability that might have lasting implications." Besides, he adds, management has little incentive to depart from the status quo: "The reality is that the current approach, while, not perfect, allows management a greater degree of flexibility in managing campaigns."

Bensinger and Schubert have been honing their principles for years, searching all the while for a suitable test case. They thought they'd finally found one last spring in Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP), a 47-facility hospital chain in central Ohio with 37,000 employees that had been locked in a bruising campaign with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 2004. "We were going down the same old tired road of the acrimonious battles of they put out their information, we put out our information," says John Starcher, CHP's senior VP for human resources. "They make attacks on our reputation and motivations, we make attacks on their reputation, back and forth." Starcher says CHP had fought similar battles in the past ("tooth and nail, with help from consultants") but this time they asked themselves, "Is that the right thing for our employees, and is it the right thing for our ministry?"

Starcher found a willing partner in Scott Courtney, the union's lead organizer for the Catholic Healthcare campaign. Together they agreed to give a modified version of the principles a try. First, a small-scale experiment covering five bargaining units and 1,000 employees in Lorain, Ohio; management won three and the union won two. That set the stage for a much larger test in early March involving around 8,000 employees. But just before the vote, a rival union swept into town and accused SEIU, essentially, of sleeping with the enemy. The whole thing got called off.

"I think we found something that is smack in the middle," a hopeful Courtney had told Fortune a couple of weeks earlier. "That really does say we're both going to trust the employees to vote, we're going to live by the results, and we're going to hold ourselves to a standard much higher than and much greater than what the law says." Not yet, alas. Maybe some day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Jr: maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism

You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.

Martin Luther King Jr was, like Jesus, a Communist.

OK, perhaps that's overstating it. For certain, neither socialism nor communism existed as ideologies in Jesus' time. Many of Jesus' sayings (e.g. sell all you have and give it to the poor) lead me to believe He might have endorsed some or many tenets of socialism had He lived today, but it's impossible to say for sure. Martin may have occasionally dealt with Communist Party members, but in the quotation above, he endorses a "move toward" socialism, not communism.

I think, though, that Martin was thinking less in terms of ideologies than of results. Substantive justice, as opposed to procedural justice. Martin saw how the African-Americans of his day were deprived of economic justice. He knew that this undermined the United States because it prevented the country from being a full community.

Ubuntu: a sub-Saharan African concept meaning, roughly, I am because we are.

Marty had a vision of the beloved community. "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." If one is oppressed, we are all diminished. Ergo, we must work together to accomplish that.

What if Marty's vision never comes to pass? There are many structural difficulties. There is a strong pattern of residential segregation by race and class in the US. The US is also a huge nation that is very sparsely populated in spots. In a global context, there are barriers of culture, language and even larger physical distance.

But that's where faith - trusting in what is unseen - comes in. It takes a long, long time to solve social problems. But for God, a thousand years is as an the blink of an eye, and the blink of an eye is as a thousand years. Marty trusted that God was with him. Americans desperately need to learn about community. And American Christians especially must step up to the plate - Christians are only Christians in community. A church that abdicates its responsibility to the community ceases to be a church.

PS: there was a (Roman Catholic) commenter earlier who said the icon of Marty was an insult to his religion. I put Marty's icon up just for you. In fact, every time I make a post that references Marty, I will put that icon up, just because it offends your religion.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The actual cost of the rescue

It may have been naive to assume that large portions of the TARP, or Trouble Asset Rescue Plan, were costless to US taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office has released a cost estimate for transactions conducted so far (this file is in PDF).

CBO estimates that over the period 2009-2018, the capital purchase part of the rescue plan (the initial $350 billion where the Treasury bought stakes in banks) will have a net cost of $14 billion. The Office of Management and Budget estimates $5 billion. They attempt to account both for the dividends the banks involved are paying on the preferred stock and for the value of the warrants (where the government gets the right to buy new common stock below market value and sell it on the market).

In other words, while the cost to taxpayers is not zero, it's not as if $350 billion has been flushed down the toilet. In addition, the rescue package prevented the entire financial system from coming into distress, which could have stopped any form of lending.

That said, once you lend money to an institution, you basically have to trust them to use it wisely. Most people do not, at this point. It may well be that from here on out, the government should concentrate more on aid to taxpayers, aid only the banks that are in greatest distress and attach greater strings to that aid.

Indeed, the American public does not think that any more aid should be offered to the bank sector, and indeed does not think that the aid offered so far has done anything. Frankly, some of this is due to a lack of understanding (albeit this is a hard field to get a handle on). The present Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, believes banks will need more capital injections. Bank of America recently requested one, because Merrill Lynch took far heavier losses than they were expecting.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

First Gaza Refusenik imprisoned

Dear Supporters,
The first Gaza refusenik was sent to prison for a term of 14 days. Courage to refuse members are in contact with his family and are helping in any way we can. To date there are about ten refuseniks, but the IDF is making special efforts to silence this story and prevent it from reaching other soldiers. We assume this is the reason why most refuseniks have not yet been trialed (some are waiting for over a week now).

Our demonstration last Thursday went very well, hundreds showed up and protested against the war. A video of the demonstration can be viewed here (Hebrew, English subtitles) This, along with other efforts of the Israeli Peace Camp, contributed to the public discourse by introducing new voices- this time critical, about the war. We plan on continuing our demonstrations and plan to hold a public debate on the subject of refusal next Sunday.

I wish to thank all those of you who proposed to donate to Courage to Refuse. Your help is much needed. An online donation System is now in place, allowing donations via credit card. The donation is processed by The Refuser Solidarity Network, an American NGO that agreed to receive donations on our behalf.

To donate, please go to: this link and select Courage to Refuse Projects in the RSN project field (This detail is very important).
American citizens- your donation is IRS-recognized 501(c)3.

With some hope and a lot of hard work- the cease fire may not be that far. Thank you all for your support.
Arik Diamant
Courage to Refuse

Friday, January 16, 2009

On the bank bailout

I received this email as a subscriber to one of Morningstar's newsletters. Josh Peters, an analyst at the firm, has some comments on the bailout.

There's also been much hand wringing and media hyperbole about the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP--that it isn't working, that we don't know where the money went, and so on. Now I'm both a taxpayer and a citizen, and I'm not at all happy with the idea that my tax dollars might go to subsidize the bad subprime lending by Mr. Suspenders and disastrous CDO investments of Mr. Wingtips. Wittier souls than I have likened capitalism without failure to religion without, shall we say, unpleasant and everlasting consequences. And I truly hope we'll see much stricter oversight of the way Wall Street does business going forward.

But there will be ample opportunity for investigation, outrage and retribution when the immediate crisis passes. I have never thought that the alternative, risking a full-throated implosion of the global financial system, was a workable alternative. In this light, I conclude that the idea the TARP is failing is just plain wrong. To date, the TARP has achieved exactly what I have expected--it put a halt to bank runs (both the "Mary Poppins" kind and the unseen run on Wall Street's short-term funding desks). When I use an ATM card these days and it works, I credit the TARP.

Levering up this capital and lending it out, well, that was never going to be an instant solution to the economy's ills. Even ordinary monetary and fiscal policy changes usually take months and years to have an effect on real economic activity. Most banks have just received these capital injections in the last month or so; moreover, if recent media reports have any credence, the demand for loans has dropped through the floor. Let's face it: American households and businesses don't need to pile more debt on their balance sheets; no good would come of a new credit bubble. Instead, it's those that are solvent-but-illiquid that need help refinancing existing debts. The old-fashioned commercial banks will have to pick up the slack left behind after Wall Street investment banks and their shadowy conduits went into the ditch, and as time passes, I continue to think this is what will happen.

As for this idea that "we don't know where the money went", you'd think that $200 billion of taxpayer money was set on fire or secretly dashed away to Swiss bank accounts. Even many members of Congress seem to hold this view. From one angle, I'll grant there isn't any practical way to track the specific use of these funds: Money is money, the ultimate fungible asset. Once inside the banking system, these specific dollars are still but a drop in the bucket. But we do know exactly what the government got for these funds: It was an investment, not an expenditure, and the Treasury now holds $200 billion worth of preferred shares earning a 5% dividend yield. Participating banks are obliged to pay dividends on these in vestments and, eventually, redeem the shares at par. Only in cases where common shareholders are wiped out would the government suffer a loss, but even in those events the losses would be no different than any private investor's loss.

Furthermore, the government received warrants on these banks' common shares, which ought to result in capital gains over the long run--helping offset, perhaps fully, the losses from failing institutions. Finally, the government borrowed the funds to invest at this 5% return for essentially nothing. This sounds like a terrific investment opportunity to me. So I look at the TARP as an initiative where doing good (helping shore up the financial system, and the real economy in time) will also allow the government--and, by extension, taxpayers--to do well, too.

I don't usually take such strong opinions that aren't strictly related to company-specific issues, or get so aggravated by the financial press. (Maybe it's just the fact that I've been watching CNBC today that has put me in an irritable mood.) I'm not always a contrarian: I heartily agree with the idea that the issuer-funded ratings agencies (Standard & Poor's, Moody's, etc.) should be disbanded, preferably yesterday. But while the leadership of Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner, et al and their Congressional partners hasn't been perfect, I can't look back and see how I or anyone else would have achieved superior results by doing things differently. In hindsight, for example, it's easy to see how letting Lehman fail was a mistake. But having made that call to disastrous effect, at least we can conclude it's a mistake that is exceedingly unlikely to be repeated.

In other words, this part of the financial system rescue is likely to be cost neutral or slightly positive to taxpayers. It increases the government's debt but the firms involved are paying more than the government paid in interest. It also may have kept the nation's larger banks from failing, which would be nightmarishly bad. When you are in crisis mode, there may be no time for oversight.

I understand that progressives are upset at what appears to be a handout. In this case, I'd encourage digging a bit beneath the surface. If the government had aided the banks but refused to aid consumers that would have been a different story. However, aid is now in the pipeline.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

George Bush - "Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere."

President George Bush said in his farewell address that "Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere." No kidding.

Vincent Bugliosi outlines a possible method for US prosecutors to bring murder charges against the outgoing President, based on existing US law. The legal theory is that 1) he deliberately commenced a war under false pretenses, 2) therefore he deliberately put American soldiers into harm's way, and 3) he is guilty of murdering American soldiers. Sounds far fetched, but Bugliosi is a former LA County District Attorney who won 105 out of 106 cases, and all 21 of his murder trials. It does not matter that he himself didn't kill US soldiers, only that he put them in harm's way. Perhaps this would at least get him convicted for manslaughter.

Other options might be for any country party to the Geneva Conventions to arrest him on travel and charge him there. Singapore is a party to the Conventions and is known to have a rather harsh criminal justice system, so perhaps they might be a good candidate.

George Bush has violated human rights on a massive scale and has permanently tarnished the United States' international reputation. He has not sought forgiveness.

Lutheran Church in Great Britain consecrates first woman bishop, Church of England dithers

As reported in the Telegraph, the Lutheran Church in Great Britain will consecrate the Rt. Rev. Jana Jeruma-Grinberga this weekend. The LCGB has only a few thousand worshipers, so I'm not so surprised that they've taken this long.

The Church of England, however, has hundreds of thousands of worshipers, and they're still dithering about how to introduce women bishops. Conservative Anglo-Catholics are threatening to walk if proper provisions of pastoral oversight aren't made. As I recall, there are some liberals who would rather not make such provisions. Indeed, making them would interfere with church unity.

In any case, the UK has had female monarchs and prime ministers before. One wonders why have they had to wait this long for a woman bishop.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Barack Obama: It's OK to violate human rights

President-elect Obama has signaled his reluctance to investigate the policies of his predecessor that relate to allowing torture, domestic spying and other police state-type activity.

An investigation and prosecutions would trigger a severe backlash from the intelligence community in the US. Make no mistake, there are people out there who want to do the US a great deal of harm. The intelligence services are critical to defending the national security.

However, at the end of the day, human rights were violated. Sometimes, they were grossly violated.

“A new president doesn’t want to look vengeful,” said a former Bush White House lawyer, Bradford A. Berenson, who was a Harvard law classmate of Mr. Obama and has represented administration figures as a private lawyer, “and the last thing a new administration wants to do is spend its time and energy rehashing the perceived sins of the old one.

“No matter how much the Obama administration’s most extreme supporters may be screaming for blood, the president himself doesn’t seem to share that bloodlust.”

What is wrong with this guy? Is this what the United States has come to? The law and order types shriek for accountability. The anti drug crusaders want people imprisoned for possessing marijuana. By that standard, the crimes of the Bush administration deserve life in prison.

If the United States does not hold its people to account for violating human rights, then someday, God will surely hold the United States to account. The least that is required is a South Africa style truth and reconciliation commission. That, surely, will be less painful in the long run.

Edit: in many ways, it looks like the US is overly soft on a number of categories of white collar crime - Bernard Madoff, the infamous swindler who cheated investors of up to $50 billion in a Ponzi scheme did not have his bail revoked despite having tried to protect some of his assets from government seizure. Madoff had mailed a number of valuable personal items to family. That's remarkably lax.

Obama redeems himself, asks Bishop Gene Robinson to give inaugural concert invocation

Rick the Warmonger is still a warmonger and a homophobe, but the President-elect of the US has asked Bishop Gene Robinson, the infamous gay bishop of New Hampshire, to give the invocation at the inauguration. Gene sent this email to the Episcopal Cafe:

We received this email from Bishop Robinson this morning:

I am writing to tell you that President-Elect Obama and the Inaugural Committee have invited me to give the invocation at the opening event of the Inaugural Week activities, “We are One,” to be held at the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, January 18, at 2:00 pm. It will be an enormous honor to offer prayers for the country and the new president, standing on the holy ground where the “I have a dream speech” was delivered by Dr. King, surrounded by the inspiring and reconciling words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is also an indication of the new president’s commitment to being the President of ALL the people. I am humbled and overjoyed at this invitation, and it will be my great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.


Having listened to two of his sermons, Gene's Christianity could be classed as progressive.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tobacco-Style Tax on Fattening Drinks

Gov. David Patterson of New York is proposing to levy a tax on non-diet soda and sugary juice drinks.

Americans need to drink less *&$(ing soda for sure. The problems with this measure are that a) the carbonated drink industry (Big Soda?) is going to oppose this vociferously and b) it's not certain that this will work as well as tobacco taxes. Tobacco is physically addictive and has no substitutes. People may well substitute sodas with other drinks that aren't taxed, or perhaps with food. While obesity needs to be tackled, it isn't certain that this intervention will work. That said, others have tried it, just not on the same scale.

Paterson's proposal wouldn't, in fact, be completely precedent-shattering. A recent study by the Institute for Health Research Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that at least 27 states impose taxes of 7% to 8% on junk food such as candy, soda, and baked good snacks, usually imposed when the products are sold through vending machines. Such levies are barely noticeable on food items that cost only a dollar or two.

There is also the political issue: he may not be able to pass such a tax.

Selling a sweet- and salt-loving American public on such a tax won't be easy, however. A Quinnipiac University poll released in late December found that 60% of New York State residents oppose Paterson's proposed tax on sodas, including 58% of those who say they prefer diet drinks over regular soda. And in November, Maine voters overturned a wholesale tax on bottled sodas as well as on the syrup used to make soda, which was signed into law the previous April.

Brownell suggests that such tariffs would be more palatable if they were labeled a "nutrition tax" rather than an obesity tax. "Ideally the money raised would then be used to subsidize healthier foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. That would get around the issue of it being a regressive tax."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Refuseniks ask for money


I received the following email from Arik Diamant, an Israeli Defence Forces reservist writing for the Refuseniks, a group of Israeli soldiers who refuse to engage in military operations in the Occupied Territories. So far, 628 soldiers have pledged not to serve in the Territories; they will face legal action from the military for doing so.

They had to cease operations some time ago for lack of funds and public interest, but they intend to start advertising and demonstrating against the current invasion of Gaza. Please consider donating if you are able.

Dear supporters,

It's been almost four years since we sent our last newsletter. The "Disengagement" plan seemed to crush the Israeli peace camp and silence any discussion on the morality of the occupation and the siege on Gaza. Refusal became irrelevant to the Israeli public discourse. Sadly, we had to close our offices for lack of funds and public interest.

Some of us continued our activity from within other groups such as Physicians for Human Rights, Yesh Gvul and Combatants for Peace. Others receded to caring for their families and developing their carriers. Lately, however, we've been summoned again to play a role in our country's politics. The brutal, unprecedented violence in Gaza is shocking. The false hope that this kind of violence will bring security to Israelis is all the more dangerous. We cannot stand aside while hundreds of civilians are being butchered by the IDF.

A few years older, hopefully a little wiser, the core members of Courage to Refuse have decided to resume activity and play once more a part in fighting for peace and democracy. This morning we published an ad in Haaretz calling soldiers to refuse to bomb Gaza. At least three soldiers have already refused to participate in the Gaza campaign and are on their way to prison. The rest of us will be demonstrating in front of the Ministry of Defense in protest of the IDF's murderous activity in Gaza this upcoming Thursday.

We turn to our supporters, in Israel and abroad, to help us in financing our activities(ads and demonstrations). We are making great efforts to re-establish an online donation service that will be 501c3 certified. Until then we urge all those capable of helping to send an email to with your name, phone number and the sum you are willing to donate. We will contact you and guide you in placing your donation.

Please help us bring change. Thank you,
Arik Diamant
Courage to Refuse
mobile: +972-522-754-528

Editor: Diamant also has an article for Ynetnews that may be of interest.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Stars and Dreams: Episcopal Cafe

Rev. Ann Fontaine writes a beautiful piece about the Magi for Episcopal Cafe

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Kenny Rogers sang these lyrics about a gambler but in this season of Epiphany they seem to apply as well to Joseph. Joseph held ‘em when he listened to the angel in his dream and kept Mary from disgrace and death, giving space in time for Jesus’ birth. He knew when to run when he heard the angel’s warning about Herod. He walked away from the danger to the child and took his family to Egypt and safety.

The lyrics also apply to the Magi, the stargazing strangers from the East who held 'em as they followed a star to find a gift beyond their imagining - a gift that made their gold, incense and myrrh pale in comparison. They walked away, seeking something worth holding and protecting it from the evil of empire as they took “another way” home from their journey.

The whole world seems to be wondering, is now the time to hold ‘em or fold ‘em, stay, walk or run? Most of our fears revolve around how to make a future for ourselves and our children. From the war in the Holy Land where each side is trying to make space for its children to live and thrive to a local family who could not keep their 3-year-old alive with all the privileges of money and medical care - the world wonders. Since the stars are unclear in their message to me, I just want to pull the covers over my head and go back to dreaming.

The theme of the recent US election was hope. The candidate who won capitalized most on this theme. In some parts of the world, coups have taken place, with each winner offering hope of a different life for people. In other places wars are being fought with the promise of new life out of the death and destruction necessary to make it happen. Will any of these really bring the life about which we dream? Are any of them a star worth following? Can we really know when it is time to hold ‘em or time to fold ‘em?

The Magi and Joseph had angels and dreams and stars for guidance. We see that they made the right choices as we read their stories. We don’t usually have these angels and dreams and stars for guidance as we journey. Sometimes we don’t even have any choice in much of life. When we do have the power to decide, we later see where choices we thought were correct turned out to be the worst things we could choose. We can see some things that seemed iffy that turned out for the best. Life is funny that way.

There is the story of the priest who always wanted to be a chaplain to an Episcopal school. He took all the right courses in his training. He interned with school programs. He received excellent recommendations. He applied for position after position, but never attained his desire. He went to work as an assistant in a large parish and worked with success in various ministries. One day he received two letters – one was an offer to become a chaplain, and the other was an offer to become the rector of a larger parish. He was torn; by this time, he wanted to be a rector as much as he wanted to be a chaplain. He lay down in front of the altar and prayed for a sign to show him which position he should accept. He prayed and prayed. Suddenly it came to him, in a dream or a voice or who knows: it does not matter which you choose – just be faithful.

Faithfulness is what is required. Life will prove the correctness of our decisions and, if we go off the rails, repentance will put us back on the right track. That is the cycle of redemption. Paul, in Romans 5 and 6, struggles with this idea of sin and grace. He does not seem to resolve it very satisfactorily. For me Thomas Merton says it best:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death. I will not fear,
for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When we hear about Joseph and the Magi now, they seem so sure. I think they too wondered if they really heard the voice of an angel or were following the right star. A gambler always believes he will know when to hold his cards or when to fold and walk away. Our lives, however, are not a gamble. They are a sure thing for as long or short as they may be. Hopefully our stories will prove that we made the right choices in our journey with God, but if not we are assured that God promises to be with us. Immanuel.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives in Wyoming and keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Bishop Suheil Dawani of Jerusalem makes statement on fighting

From Episcopal Cafe, Bishop Suheil Dawani has made a statement on the fighting in Gaza. Pray for peace in the Middle East.

JERUSALEM, January 7th, 2009 – At a time when great tragedy is occurring in the Holy Land in Gaza, I want to share some insight into what we are experiencing on a moment to moment basis. Our Diocese has one of 11 hospitals serving a population of 1.5 million residents in the Gaza Strip. The Al Ahli Arab (Anglican) Hospital has been in operation for over 100 years and has a very dedicated medical staff of doctors, nurses, technicians and general services personnel.

During the best of times they are stretched to their maximum meeting the medical needs of this populous community. Now, during the current military conflict with its heavy toll on human life and material, the hospital faces even greater responsibilities and challenges. The result is growing strain on the hospital’s resources. Every day since the beginning of military operations, the hospital has received 20-40 injured or wounded patients. A large proportion of them require hospitalization and surgery. These patients are in addition to those with non-conflict-related illnesses. About one-fourth of the patients are children.

In addition, the conflict has brought new type of medical and surgical conditions. For example, patients with burns and acute, crippling psychological trauma, are being seen more frequently. Because it is not possible for aid workers to enter Gaza at this time, the hospital’s staff is working around the clock, struggling with the effects of exhaustion and against limited resources in a conflicted area of ongoing military operations.

Many medical items are needed, especially bandages and supplies for burns and trauma. The hospital’s windows have all been blown out or shattered from rocket and missile concussion and cold permeates the entire premises. Plastic sheeting to cover the windows could alleviate some of the cold but is unavailable now. Food supplies are scant throughout the Gaza strip and maintaining patients’ nutritional needs at the hospital has been difficult, especially for the most vulnerable. Some medicines and supplies for the hospital have been generously donated by US AID, but it has not yet been possible to deliver the items.

Efforts to help alleviate some of the shortages are underway and we hope that the shipments will arrive quickly. Through the ICRC limited amounts of diesel fuel are being delivered to keep the electrical generators functional for life saving and other essential equipment. We are working with a number of related governmental and international voluntary agencies to speed up the delivery and steady supply of needed medicines and food. We are also working to ensure to the fullest extent possible the physical safety of the Hospital staff and campus.

On a “normal” day, approximately 600 life line trucks a day bring supplies to the Gaza Strip. Many are under the auspices of UNRWA and international relief agencies because about two-thirds of Gaza’s residents are Refugees and living in UNRWA Camps. During this time of conflict, that number of trucks is not seen in a week or more. Because of the reduced deliveries, medical items, nutritional food, and other basic supplies are now scarce items, if available at all, for our brothers and sisters in Gaza.

I ask you to join with me in prayer and by offering whatever financial support you can for our Hospital and heroic Staff of the Al Ahli Hospital - and other such humanitarian endeavors. Thankfully the Hospital plant remains intact at this time. While several among our Staff have suffered loss and injuries within their own families, they are representing all of us as a witness of God’s love to all people - “come unto to me all you who are heavy laden and I will refresh you”. As we continue to pray for communal Palestinian and Israeli PEACE, we especially remember these dedicated individuals who cannot leave, but most importantly do not want to leave, but continue to do all they can to help.

Our Lord’s imperative in St. John’s Gospel during this Epiphany season gives each of us the new hope for a new dawn of light, life and communal conciliation - "I have come that you may have Life and have it abundantly”.

(Refer to the Diocese of Jerusalem's Web site for previous statements on Gaza from The Bishop. Information about donating money can be provided on request).

Why banks still won't lend

People may be wondering why banks won't make new loans even after their respective governments have made multibillion dollar investments, allegedly freeing up capital to lend. This Businessweek article explains why. Basically, banks can't simply loan out $1 for every $1 of capital they receive. They need to maintain an allowance for bad loans, write-downs, etc.

Additionally, banks had been loaning out too much money in the past, because they were able to use a lot more leverage (debt) than they had the right to. Expecting them to return to their old standards isn't reasonable.

Now that their balance sheets are weak, it is a reasonable public policy measure for governments to make direct investments and shore the banks' balance sheets up if taxpayers are being compensated - and they are.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Possible environmental problems with Canada's oil sands

As oil prices have increased, it's become economic to extract oil from oil sands in Canada, especially in Alberta. The sands contain deposits of bitumen, aka tar. A New York Times article has some details:

Transforming the tar, more properly known as bitumen, which is mixed with sand, into petroleum is energy intensive and creates significant carbon emissions. Steam created by burning natural gas separates the semisolid bitumen. Then, more natural gas is needed to turn the bitumen into synthetic crude, which can be processed by refineries.

The development of oil sands projects has created North America’s greatest boomtown in recent years, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Its outsize economic importance has prompted Canada’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to champion the industry.

After the November election in the United States, Mr. Harper said he would seek to devise a continental climate change pact with the Obama administration. Mr. Harper suggested that any such agreement would include an apparent escape hatch for the oil sands because, he argued, of the energy security benefits they offer the United States.

Since then, however, Mr. Harper avoided an early defeat of his government, which does not control a majority of seats in the House of Commons, by shutting Parliament. Even if the Obama administration is willing to hold talks with Canada, Mr. Harper’s grip on power is now uncertain.

The Times cites a new study by the RAND corporation, a respected American think tank/policy research organization, that finds that greenhouse emissions in producing oil from oil sands are 10-30% higher than conventional crude. Environmental Defence, a respected environmental advocacy group, estimates that 4 billion liters of contaminated water were leaked from tailings ponds. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports severe damage to wildlife habitats from strip mining.

Unfortunately, there are significant financial and political interests that want to keep the oil sands flowing, no matter what the cost. Current Canadian PM Stephen Harper is one of them. There are others in the US:

“It would be a big mistake for Congress to impose restrictions on the oil sands,” said Paul Cellucci, a former governor of Massachusetts and former United States ambassador to Canada who now works on energy issues for the law firm McCarter & English, in Boston. “That would not be good for the United States.”

Monday, January 05, 2009

Personal post: prayers as my girlfriend and I move to DC

I'm moving to DC to take a 6 month internship at a think tank. My girlfriend is moving with me - we are looking to live in sin to figure out if we should get married. My internship is paid, but $12 an hour doesn't go very far. She's looking for jobs and internships.

While this does not compare at all to the plight of, for example, starving children in refugee camps in the Sudan, it is a financial risk for both of us - especially since I don't have a full time job lined up.

Do keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

King and God and sacrifice

David Walker writes a very insightful article for Thinking Anglicans.

Until Francis of Assisi came along and subverted it all, the most popular scene in Christian art to be drawn from the infancy narratives was the adoration of the magi. The reasons, as often in church history had less to do with theology or devotion than with more earthy matters. Art was, by and large, commissioned by rulers, and such men had a natural interest in having the infant Jesus portrayed as a king among kings. Even in pictures of the mother and her child we see no vulnerable human baby but a miniature sovereign, often with crown and sceptre, enthroned on Mary’s lap. The message was clear, if Jesus is like your earthly king then your ruler is like Jesus – treat him accordingly. Maybe it was under such pressures that legend had transmuted Persian astrologers into royalty in the first place.

The irony lies in that, in doing so, the church had made a bulwark of human authority out of the very tale that was intended to subvert it. For each of the three gifts offered by the magi strikes a blow directly into the heart of the traditional imagery it employs. Gold for a ruler; incense for a divinity; myrrh for a death, as the hymn puts it, Jesus is greeted as “king and god and sacrifice”, but each of them is the very opposite of what it seems.

Centuries earlier prophets had cautioned the Israelites about kings, warning that they would rule over them more for their own personal benefit and aggrandisement rather than for the wellbeing of the people. By that first Epiphany in Bethlehem a thousand years had proved it all too true. As Herod accurately observed, Jesus was there to undermine and supplant his authority. But not simply to supplant in name, replacing one tyrant with another as the devil would tempt him thirty years later. Jesus offers a new way of being king that has its roots in service, in love, in self-emptying and will blossom in healing and in teaching. Meanwhile each earthly empire, from ancient Rome via Victorian Britain and the Soviet Union to 21st century USA, remains satanic; serving the powerful and their interests before anyone else.

Likewise, Jesus seeks to deconstruct our familiar notions of divinity. He brings no set of dogmas for unthinking assent; no comprehensive list of unchallengeable moral precepts. He comes instead with a fund of simple stories and a natural critique of all that passes for human behaviour. He lays down not “what” to believe and to do but “how” to live and “why” it matters. Arguable as to whether it’s enough on which to pin a couple of creeds and a handful or so of sacraments, it’s the very opposite of the efforts his followers continue to make to separate, exclude and anathematise each other.

Finally he turns the whole concept of sacrifice on its head. Instead of the one to whom sacrifice is to be made, God becomes himself the victim. It’s a notion so challenging to conventional wisdom that, from catholic Eucharistic theology to the concept of substitutionary atonement beloved of the more firm Protestants, many Christians have sought to restore the natural order rather than root themselves in the one who gives himself not simply for us but to us.

So, as metaphorically we travel with the magi today on the final leg of their journey to Bethlehem, remember this: Epiphany is startling. It overturns what society, secular and religious, is comfortable with. It’s as shocking as the notion that God should be revealed as a Jewish baby to the gentile followers of religious practices condemned by the Old Testament.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Christian chauvinism on display

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge is one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopal priest. She's an Evangelical with a wide view of the world and Christianity's place in it. I respect her highly. However, I also think that she falls prey to chauvinism in a recent post on her blog, reproduced below.

For many years I have been testing my belief that the Judeo-Christian heritage is the strongest of all the world’s traditions, and I have not found any evidence to make me change my mind. The superiority of the Jewish and Christian faiths, tied ineluctably together as they are, is certainly not dependent on superior moral performance, however. It can be persuasively argued that no faith is superior to any other in the arena of actual human behavior. There are atrocities and horrors enough to go around (who knew, until the book Zen at War was published in 1997, that Zen Buddhism was profoundly complicit in the whole Japanese military effort before and during World War II—with an added overtone of anti-Semitism?). The Church has acknowledged its manifold sins repeatedly and still continues to make amends. The factor that makes our tradition unique is its self-correcting core. I do not see this deeply rooted value in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Chinese philosophy.

Take for example an article on today’s New York Times front page, “Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva University Adds a Lesson.” The point of the article is that the arch-schemer is Jewish, and the Orthodox university is searching its soul. It is an arresting example of the way that Judaism questions itself from within. I argue that this capacity is built into the Biblical faith and derives from its ever-renewing Source. Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) differently from Christians, because they read it through the lenses of the Talmud and the Mishnah, but there can be no mistaking the emphasis on self-criticism in light of the values derived from the story of the Hebrew God.

(Fleming quotes an article about Yeshiva University)

First, the capacity for soul-searching is built into every human being, courtesy of God. What creed we follow matters less. To say that "I do not see this deeply rooted value" in other traditions is very dangerous and brings up the question of how deeply Fleming knows any tradition other than her own.

Second, the Church is very, very slow to acknowledge its sin. While the Church is making amends over anti-Semitism and racism to a considerable extent, we have yet to acknowledge other sins, such as homophobia.

Now, I've often accused Asian cultures and Asian Christians of being low on self-reflection. I think, but cannot prove, that self-reflection comes with development. People exposed to the West are also often cultural critics in their own societies. I agree that self-criticism makes a religion great, I just don't think Fleming has sufficient grounds to say that Christianity and Judaism are superior in that trait. For Christians to say such things will expose us to charges of arrogance and calls into question our ... capacity to self-reflect.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Santa died for your Mastercard

Poorer UK Whites feel betrayed on immigration, says report

When groups of people compete for resources that are perceived to be limited, discrimination and stereotyping ensues. In social psychology, this is known as the Realistic Conflict Theory. Immigration is one such situation, and The Independent has an article on the perceptions of working-class Whites in the UK on immigration.

Many white working-class communities believe their views on immigration are being ignored, while those coming into the country are given preferential access to housing and benefits.

The research by the Department for Communities and Local Government found that white working-class communities felt they had been "betrayed" and abandoned by the establishment, which no longer had their concerns at heart.

The Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, said that politicians had to start engaging with the disenchantment among poorer, white sections of society in order to combat growing "myths" over the treatment of immigrants.

Her department's report suggested, she said, that the resentment, unfairness and disempowerment perceived by the group together with the absence of an "open and honest discussion" about immigration had created fertile ground for the far-right to exploit.

Its conclusions, based on interviews with people living on council estates in Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Thetford, Runcorn and Widnes, found that while there was a high amount of disquiet over benefits given to immigrants, few of those asked had experienced regular contact with people from ethnic minorities.

It said that hostility towards them was worst in deprived, working class areas because "people who have the least are more likely to be afraid of things being taken away from them".

Ms Blears warned that branding the views "racist" risked alienating the communities affected even further, and called on politicians to respond to their "real and perceived sense of unfairness".

"White working class people living on estates sometimes just don't feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them. Whilst they might not be experiencing the direct impact of migration, their fear of it is acute," she said.

"Changes in communities can generate unease and uncertainty. These changes need to be explained and questions need to be answered or the myths that currently surround the treatment of ethnic minorities 'jumping the queue' will become increasingly hard to shift."

Conservative community cohesion and social action spokeswoman, Baroness Warsi, said the report proved that New Labour had "completely lost touch with their so-called roots".

"The danger for the rest of us is that this has now created a ticking time bomb of racial and class prejudice.

"Amongst other things this has also demonstrated the dangers of Labour's past use of identity politics for electoral purposes."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Update to alcohol guide - champagne/sparking wine

This may be a little late, but Smartmoney has a guide to buying sparkling wine. Champagne really does have a mystique, but there are many other sparkling wines that are really good. Of Smartmoney's list, I highly recommend the Cristalio Cava. $8 and tastes really good. Spanish cava hasn't been discovered yet, so get it while it's cheap.

I also found a sparkling wine produced in New Mexico. That state certainly isn't known for wine. It's really quite good, though.