Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The New World Order


Events of the past several years up close could be compared to individuated and discrete dots, each circumscribed by itself alone, each self-contained and even comprehensible. The housing bubble. The financial crisis. The energy crisis. The financialization of the American economy. Our colleges as beer-and-sports luxury purchases. "Globalization." 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Federal Reserve's printing presses. China. India. Europe's empty churches and cradles. TARP. Cash-for-clunkers. Gold at $1,100 an ounce. The Federal Stimulus plan. The United States, indispensable yet teetering.

Seen from something of a distance - from a point of "perspective" - all these points, and many others, come into focus as an example of "pointillism," a comprehensible picture in which many discrete points, seen from a distance, converges into a picture altogether more comprehensive and even distinct. The picture being portrayed is the end of Western liberalism, and the beginning of something rather different - something yet without a name - but which I'll call authoritarian capitalism for shorthand.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st-century, accumulating evidence points to the decline not only of America, but the operating assumption of a market-based, liberal nation-state that has operated over the hundred and fifty or so years. That system - whose philosophical groundwork was laid in the latter part of the eighteenth-century, but which began in earnest with the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century - argued in essence that two seemingly incompatible ends could be achieved.

First, it was held that modern society should be built around the goal of material prosperity - "the relief of the human estate," in Bacon's phrase, or "commodious living," in Hobbes's articulation. Human ingenuity and the rise of modern science aimed toward maximizing the ability of humans to manipulate and control the natural world, and to extract from it hitherto unimaginable bounties for life.

Second, particularly with arguments posed by John Locke and the Framers, as well as the thought of many thinkers in the Scottish Enlightenment, it was held that political sovereignty rested in the will of the people, and that political systems ultimately derived their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. This basic insight (which had some relationship to medieval theories of constitutionalism, albeit without a concept of "human will" at its core) laid the groundwork for theories of modern democracy, including periodic elections, theories of rights-based individualism, and eventually a form of liberal welfare-statism that would ensure the basic material conditions of life needed for participation in the political and civic order.

The result were two theories in pronounced tension, if not outright contradiction, with one another. The first claim recognized that practical inequality was the likely result: as people's talents and abilities were permitted maximum distinction in an environment of opportunity and progress, some would achieve great rewards, and others would risk too much or accomplish too little. Prosperity with pronounced social inequality and societal instability was the anticipated outcome. The second claim allowed for the full expression of grievances over those unequal outcomes, with the strong possibility that the popular sovereign would demand some form of equalization of outcome.

Classical political science had long understood that any such extreme and permanent forms of social inequality and instability led to social unrest and ultimately endangered the viability of private property. For this reason, political democracy was thought to be incompatible with significant forms of material inequality. Where extensive forms of inequality existed - typically in large-scale regimes, most often various forms of empire - it was believed that a strong form of autocratic rule was essential. A strong distinction between republic and empire was one inheritance of classical political science, in acknowledgment of the political incompatibility of political equality and social stratification.

The new political science introduced a third element into the mix: growth. Economic growth was the bribe that Stratification offered to Equality. In return, Equality agreed largely to respect the boundaries of rights to private property (though, truth be told, in times of economic stress, this relationship would become strained and Stratification would need to offer an additional pay-off to Equality, e.g., The New Deal). As long as economic growth tempted Equality enough that it might benefit from Stratification, the bargain held. America seemed to be a story of economic AND political progress, a constant increase in PROSPERITY and EQUALITY all powered by GROWTH.

Trouble was: until the latter part of the 20th-century, American growth was premised upon unrelenting ravaging of the resources of the continent. Everywhere something of value could be found, it was extracted and exploited. America largely eschewed the wars of imperialism (largely, though not entirely), a) because it was able to recategorize a domestic form of imperialism as its manifest destiny leading to the "Empire of Liberty," and b) the resulting continental amassing of property had more than enough resources to exploit without engaging in the kind of foreign imperial project required of the Europeans. At the same time, the regime became ever more "democratic," as political rights and even forms of State obligations were extended to ever more classes of people - the propertyless, former slaves (whose labor was replaced by machines and the energy slaves that powered them), women, immigrants, youth, and so on. A narrative of Progress (powered by Growth) hid the fundamental tension of the regime from view.

In 1971, the United States simultaneously produced as much oil as it would ever produce (hitting its point of domestic peak production) and produced an elaborate theory that philosophically justified a permanent institutionalized form of property-redistribution that at once a) would ensure the pacification of the least-well off, and b) continued to permit systemic inequality (I speak here of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice and his famous "difference principle"). I do not think it was a matter of mere coincidence that these two events occurred at the same historical moment: this was, oddly, the high water mark of the marriage between Stratification and Equality, a kind of celebration of their compatibility even as it also marked the beginning of their long separation. The continental growth that had depended on resource exploitation - above all, oil - was beginning its long descent, and with it a mad scramble to replace it with various kinds of fixes that only ensured further and more severe forms of stratification - the "unlocking of shareholder value"; outsourcing; the "symbolic-analytic" economy; the ramping up of the meritocratic educational system, and the accompanying insanity and corruption of our universities; the "financialization" of the economy; a debt culture that began in earnest with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and reached its culmination (if not its final act) in the Autumn of 2008; and the expansion of the American military umbrella which, above all, protected sources of "foreign oil" that the empire simultaneously required for its maintenance and which it maintained through the enforcement of empire. America was on its way to foreclosure, but before that happened, those with enough know-how, cleverness, and the advantage of unscrupulousness would do what would become common in many instances of foreclosure: they would strip the domicile of everything of worth, leaving only a shell of worthless material that could barely house and protect anyone who happened to be left behind. It was a Made-off economy.

All the major players knew that the "social contract" between Stratification and Equality was teetering, but that it could be propped up a while longer with further pay-offs. For years these pay-offs had no longer come out of "current use" funds - those funds were becoming too precious, and without prospect for long-term increase - to be used to pay off the demands of Equality. Instead, pay-offs were increasingly made using future funds, the presumed inheritance and legacy of generations not born, all added to a running tab called "the deficit" or (most amusingly) the Social Security "Trust Fund." A massive fiction called "the National Debt" was sold to the rising nation of China, who - for lack of better savings depot - decided to buy out its only real competitor, biding its time for the day when it would own the West. Monetary policy was devised to create a series of oscillating bubbles, each popping ever more closely to the previous, each one indicating a growing frenzy to get what one can while one could. Fearing electoral backlash, the political classes continued to buy enough votes to bring its success in the next election, and the money-masters financed that auction in return for 1,070 blind eyes.

Without the advantage of a crystal ball, I suspect we will be looking at a New World Order within a decade. Writing at the eve of 2020, we will look back on the first score of the 21st century and see more clearly than we do now that "regime change" was afoot - albeit not the sort we might have imagined when that phrase entered the common parlance. The massing evidence that still requires a conclusion suggests that the 21st century will signal the end of the arrangement of the past 150 or so years. The marriage of Stratification and Equality will unravel, and I fear that it will not be a friendly parting. As is often the case in ugly divorces, those of us - friends of each spouse - will be forced to choose which we will remain our friend, for the other will finally brook no communication with the other. And all the evidence to date suggests that the choice will be difficult: we will not want to choose either, loving aspects of both while fearful of offending the other. We will try to remain friends of each until the bitter end, and - predictably - will end up driving both away.

The future will be China, and the new world order. That arrangement is deadly realist about the incompatibility of Stratification and Equality. It has embraced a future of Prosperity without a sentimental glance at the worn bride, Equality. It has ruthlessly elected to engage in the remaining prospects of worldwide resource exploitation, and will do so unburdened by the often tragi-comic efforts of the West to maintain the fiction that this effort can be finally made compatible with a marriage to Equality.

The choice facing America today is grim: it shows every sign of a willingness to embrace the Chinese model, a model it will likely choose to remain "competitive," but also daily demonstrates its habits of blandishing a citizenry that demands to be coddled. The "democracy" continues to demand its fair share of a dwindling pie, an expected denoument when citizens have been redefined as "consumers." I wager that in 10 years' time, the nation will either have sunk itself beneath the untenable weight of continuing payment of a bribe that could never be sustained - and will look like a third world "banana republic" - or, it will have "successfully" made the transition to another regime, an form of autocratic capitalism in which the State will change the terms of the bribe, paying us with materialist distractions in exchange for our political rights and equality. I daily see signs of both prospects, and can't clearly discern at the moment which will arise. Either way, our culmination is grim, for in either event we will cease in any real sense to be a Republic.

But, that may have happened long ago. We may never have been a Republic. We may have always been an Empire - or at least our tendency was tilted in that direction - and only became better at it over time. We have only imperfectly, and occasionally been truly self-governing. And, I sadly acknowledge at the end of an old year, the prospects for self-governance in this careening modern world have never been dimmer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Prayer

John Locke was the first great liberal defender of the idea of religious toleration, as well as the thinker who lies behind many of today's arguments that religion should be excluded from political considerations in "the public square." Locke is widely regarded in the academy as the great originator of liberal secularism. Yet, it was Locke - in a less-read work called The Reasonableness of Christianity - who argued that reason alone was insufficient to arrive at certain moral precepts held to be true by modern man, above all the belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings. What Locke knew - that reason provided insufficient basis for a belief in human dignity - many of Locke's epigones have forgotten. Yet it is a lesson with which we re-acquaint ourselves every year during the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke wrote: "'tis our mistake to think, that ... we had the first certain knowledge of [truths] from [reason], and in that clear Evidence we now possess them. The contrary is manifest, in the defective Morality of the Gentiles before our Saviour's time.... Philosophy seemed to have spent its strength, and done its utmost...." In other words, the reason-based philosophy of the pre-Christians (such as Plato and Aristotle) went as far toward ascertaining morality as was possible, but still - from the perspective of those living after the birth of Christ - fell short.

Locke concluded that the unaided reason of ancient philosophy - truth available to all humans by reason alone that preceded the truth of Biblical revelation - was finally insufficient to discover the full scope of morality: "And we see, [reason] resolved not the doubts that had arisen amongst the Studious and Thinking Philosophers; Nor had yet been able to convince the Civilized parts of the World, that they had not given, nor could without a Crime, take away the Lives of Children, by Exposing them." Reason-based philosophy was insufficient to finding an argument against the exposure of babies, a conclusion that should strike many contemporaries as worrisome, particularly as the idea of human dignity today is undergoing a new, post-Christian reason-based assault.

Today many take for granted what the Enlightenment thinker John Locke did not permit himself to assume - that unaided "reason" is sufficient to discover and defend grounds of inherent and equal human dignity. Too easily we assume that this unique legacy of Christianity is easily translated into secular terms. Yet, many would be hard-pressed to articulate the grounds for human dignity without at some point relying upon the Christian inheritance that is often attacked or denied by many elites in today's formative institutions.

Perhaps, finally, the grounds for our inherited (and, perhaps, attenuating) belief in human dignity is best understood by reflecting upon the meaning of the events that are commemorated in the next several days - the birth of Jesus, the Emmanuel. For, when God becomes man - and a woman gives birth to God - then even in God's humiliation, all of humanity is elevated. For the first time, even the lowliest human is godlike, and God is to be found in all humans, no matter their place or position. Often lost in the culture war debates over creches and Christmas trees is the basic transformative fact that God was born of woman in a barn. The world, and humankind, was never the same.

A better expression of this idea might not be found than a prayer by Ian Oliver, pastor of the University Church at Yale University. I copy this from the Christmas Eve meditation in this years Magnificat. And, to let the words of Reverend Oliver be the last here before the days of Christmas, I take this opportunity to wish readers a blessed and peaceful Christmas. Salvete.

A Christmas Prayer

On that holy night,
It happened.

God took a handful of humanity:
Proud, petulant, passionate;
And a handful of divinity:
Undivided, inexpressible, incomprehensible:
And enclosed them in one small body.

Somehow, the all too human
Touched the divine.
And was not vaporized.
To be human was never the same,
But forever thereafter,
Carried a hint of its close encounter with the perfect.
and forever thereafter,
God was never the same,
But carried a hint of the passion of the mortal.

If God can lie down in a cattle-trough,
is any object safe from transformation?
If peasant girls can be mothers to God,
Is any life safe from the invasion of the eternal?

If all this could happen, O God,
What places of darkness on our earth
are pregnant with light waiting to be born this night?

If all this could happen, O God,
Then you could be, and are, anywhere, everywhere,
Waiting to be born this night in the most
unbelievable places,
Perhaps even in our own hearts. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Just Saying

"Jaywalking" is a hilarious and terrifying sketch in which Jay Leno "tests" fellow Americans on their basic knowledge of history, geography, etc. Of course, we see the most outrageously incorrect answers on air, but it is truly scary at times how utterly clueless our (voting) countrymen can be.

That said, watch this clip in which Leno quizzes Americans about some basic historical facts in relation to Independence Day. What is particularly striking about this clip is the final sequence: he quizzes a father and a mother and their son about some basic historical facts, all of which they catastrophically fail to answer. Then he calls to the "grandfather," who gives us a glimpse into the inheritance of a childhood education before many of our purported educational "reforms" (and, perhaps evidence of an age when reading was more common). It is a stunning conclusion to a rather depressing demonstration.

I know nothing about this family, but one wonders how the self-confident knowledge of one generation failed to be transmitted even two generations into the future. Writ large, it is representative of the situation in which we find ourselves, surrounded by information but knowing less than our "ignorant" forbears.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moralism Without Morality

On the Washington Post Georgetown/On Faith website, I've posted a response to a previous posting by another author on that site. I have been struck by the growing use of the language of moral condemnation on the Left - particularly directed at greedy "fat cat" Wall Street bankers - yet without any accompanying belief in the need for the inculcation of morality. I'm struck that this is a form of "moralism without morality," and find it to be deeply disingenuous. Here's what I wrote:


A recent post on this site raises some serious issues, and I think reveals a significant problem on the Left. In a previous post by Katherine Marshall entitled "Greed (Not America) Gets the Blame," Ms. Marshall describes a recent international conference attended presumably by many in the international Left where the language of "greed" made a significant appearance. What is worth noting about this post is its confirmation that the Left has firmly returned to the use of strong moral language and even terms of moral judgment and condemnation. The Left's rediscovery of moral language has been particularly the consequence of what are regarded as the moral failings of Wall Street and its role in precipitating the financial crisis. President Obama has championed this return to moral language, and efforts by Left religious leaders (such as Jim Wallis) to circumscribe a Left Christianity have given permission for the revival of such moral categories as "greed" in the language of Left political leaders and movements.

Yet - as the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post suggests - this reinvigoration of moral language comes without an accompanying code that translates judgment into action. What we are seeing is moralism without morality: we are hearing the remnant of moral language without a comprehensive moral system, particularly one that can confidently demand and expect changes in behavior, particularly efforts to restrict or limit behavior that is deemed sinful or vicious. The discomfort with the implications attending the use of moral language is revealed at the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post, which emphasizes the difficulty of arriving at a solution to the problem of greed, and offers "complexity" rather than the simpler conclusion that the behavior of greed requires the exercise of and inculcation in virtue.

The Left's rediscovery of moral language marks a sea change from its more recent ways of speaking, derived from its dominant philosophical stances of the past forty years or so, when much of the language of the Left became either riven with technocratic dispassion (think Michael Dukakis) or relativistic non-judgmentalism (think "multiculturalism"). The language of morality tended to be found more staunchly on the Right, from the stirring moral tones of President Reagan to the invocations of "Good and Evil" often pronounced by George W. Bush. Most on the Left at the time found such moral language to be inappropriate in what they regarded as an increasingly secular age; if God was dead, then so was the old-fashioned language of moral condemnation and judgment. Ours was to be a new age of getting along, and getting beyond old-fashioned divisions to one in which most problems could be solved by the application of technical and technological advances or simple letting live. As John F. Kennedy declared in the 1960s,

Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint - Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems ... that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred the country so often in the past.

The Left has been particularly uncomfortable with moral language because it has historically been linked to demands for moral strictures and restraints on behavior. The Left today denounces Wall Street for excessive greed, and at the moment Congress is considering legislation to put new regulations on the financial industry. In a sense this is to seek to alter behavior, but to treat the issue as a matter of legislative policy is to treat it as a "technical" problem, one in which the excesses of capitalism can be reined in without truly addressing the problem of greed. In fact, what the legislative solution largely seeks to achieve is leaving intact the motive of greed while minimizing the systemic damage it can wreak while increasing the opportunity for redistribution of its fruits. Further, what we have seen is condemnation of excessive greed even as the Administration calls for increased borrowing and spending by "consumers," i.e., those who "consume." This is hardly a stance that seeks to comprehensively redress the problem of greed in modern economic life. Ms. Marshall acknowledges that she doesn't really want to kill the golden calf that provides the engine for (among other things) international development, and underlying the fantasies of many Progressives is not a world of self-denying moralists, but one of ever-increasing wealth. Asceticism and self-denial are out; endless growth and personal autonomy are "in."

Above all, the Left is uncomfortable with moral strictures because such codes ultimately apply to corporeal "greediness" - that is, human sexuality. The Left is currently the party of unfettered sexual license, one that seeks to defend nearly every form of sexual appetite short of those few forms that it still regards as forbidden (sex with minors or those in positions of inferior power are still regarded as off-limits; polygamy is a contested area, as is - surprisingly - bestiality. Homosexuality and serial monogamy, of course, are wholly accepted, even praised). The discomfort with urging truly moral consequences that one would expect to accompany the language of moral condemnation is most often lacking because the Left has come to define itself as the "Party of Progress," in opposition to the "Party of Memory" (or, "Tradition"), to use Emerson's language. Morality is problematic because, more often than not, it forestalls those "experiments in living" that were praised and recommended by John Stuart Mill. Morality consists primarily of injunctions against - the language of morality begins most often with the words "Thou shalt NOT..." Any such assertion of traditional limits has been historically a standing challenge for the Left, the barriers against which it has struggled to overcome. As D.C. councilman David Catania was quoted to say in the wake of the Council's vote to legalize gay marriage, the "other side" (i.e. conservatives) are wrong because they are "tethered to the past." To be tethered - restrained - is a sign of being on the "wrong side of history."

In short, a distinctive feature of today's Left is Moralism without Morality. It consists of the language of morality without a willingness to seriously entertain a comprehensive moral code, one that at its heart would assert injunctions and limitations upon behavior, and endorses the necessary accompanying moral formation and ethical political and cultural habits and behaviors that would reinforce such formation. The Left is in a bind, and what Marshall describes is the inevitable frustrations of a moralism combined with the absence of a morality, or a diagnosis that resists the hard demands of the necessary cure (e.g., the Left is akin to the morbidly obese patient who prefers a pill or an operation, not the hard discipline of diet and exercise).

One sees this problem today in the area most revered by the Left, namely Environmentalism. Here again one is wont to hear the language of moral judgment, even invocations of inter-generational responsibility and duty that have historically been more likely to be invoked by conservatives (think Edmund Burke's social contract, composed of the "living, the dead, and the not yet born..."). The Left recognizes that such threats as global warming, species extinction, and resource depletion are caused by various wild excesses of human behavior. But it is fundamentally unwilling to entertain the prospect of demanding the kinds of changes of human behavior that would be needed to redress the environmental threats we face, above all because the very forms of individual autonomy at the heart of the Left's agenda are deeply premised upon the current arrangements that otherwise lead to environmental degradation. The Left is largely wed to technical solutions to the problems of morality, proposing solutions such as "clean coal" (is there a "clean" way to strip mine mountains?) and massive government expenditures in the pursuit of "green energy" - rather than simply using and doing less. Just so, Marshall dismisses the notion that one rational conclusion is that "we should fly less," instead calling for "complex solutions."

We can be sure of a few things. Any such "complex solutions" almost surely will seek to avoid any serious demands for change in our behavior, but will almost certainly ramp up the need for further expansion of the governmental-industrial (and military) complex. Marshall writes of her frustration "that the solutions are so unconvincing," and lists among those unconvincing solutions the admonition to "temper your consumption." But isn't this precisely the point: if the moral failing we most exhibit is greed, then temperance must be the answer. Yet, for a political disposition wishing to retain moralism without the hard demands and self-chastening of an accompanying morality, such a path is finally "unconvincing."

One final note: it must be acknowledged that the American Right currently exhibits the same pathologies and contradictions, more often than not condemning immorality (particularly of the sexual variety) while out of the other side of its mouth praising greed (in the form of unfettered free markets). Still, I think the path to reconciliation of the contradictions on the Right is more visible, given that philosophically the Right has not jettisoned morality. The Right remains imperfectly the "Party of Memory," making its path to the reconciliation of the language of moralism with the fullness of morality less treacherous than that facing the Left. For, the Left, in the end, faces the reality of its own self-contradiction: the Party of Progress is unlikely ever to be the Party of Morality. And a Party of Moralists without Morality must face the distinct possibility that it is above all a Party of disingenuous scolds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

When Left is Right

Some thinkers on the Left have sniffed the smelling salts and are emerging from their love-fest to notice that the New Boss is increasingly indistinguishable from the Old Boss. As I predicted. Note that the mainstream Right has found much to like in Obama of late, from his Afghanistan decision to his Nobel Speech. And, more quietly, everyone has lined up to support "cap and trade" legislation designed to make our "leaders" appear to be environmentally sensitive but which is in fact designed mainly to make more money for Wall Street. The same Wall Street that is overall pretty happy with the wan piece of financial regulation legislation working its way through the system - one with enough loopholes to drive a Brinks truck through. Meanwhile, everyone pretends that there's lots of disagreement between the "parties" in debates over a bad healthcare bill and we focus our attention on media shills who bandy around the terms "fascist" and "socialist" while ignoring that the military-industrial complex continues to roll happily along.

Here's Matt Taibi (hat tip, Rod Dreher):

Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street as the global economy melted down in that fateful fall of 2008. He pushed a tax plan to soak the rich, ripped NAFTA for hurting the middle class and tore into John McCain for supporting a bankruptcy bill that sided with wealthy bankers "at the expense of hardworking Americans." Obama may not have run to the left of Samuel Gompers or Cesar Chavez, but it's not like you saw him on the campaign trail flanked by bankers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. What inspired supporters who pushed him to his historic win was the sense that a genuine outsider was finally breaking into an exclusive club, that walls were being torn down, that things were, for lack of a better or more specific term, changing.
Then he got elected.

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

How could Obama let this happen? Is he just a rookie in the political big leagues, hoodwinked by Beltway old-timers? Or is the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests we've been seeing on TV this fall who Obama really is?

Whatever the president's real motives are, the extensive series of loophole-rich financial "reforms" that the Democrats are currently pushing may ultimately do more harm than good. In fact, some parts of the new reforms border on insanity, threatening to vastly amplify Wall Street's political power by institutionalizing the taxpayer's role as a welfare provider for the financial-services industry. At one point in the debate, Obama's top economic advisers demanded the power to award future bailouts without even going to Congress for approval -- and without providing taxpayers a single dime in equity on the deals.

And here's yet another great Joe Bageant denuciation:

This frustrating ping pong game in which the margin of first time, disenchanted and undecided voters are batted back and forth has become the whole of American elections. That makes both the Republican and Democratic parties very happy, since it keeps the game down to fighting the enemy they know, each other, as opposed to being forced to deal with the real issues, or worse yet, an independent or third party candidate who might have a solution or two.

Thus, the game is limited to two players between two corporate parties. One is the Republican Party, which believes we should hand over our lives and resources directly to the local Chamber of Commerce, so the chamber can deliver them to the big corporations. The other, the Democratic Party, believes we should hand our lives and resources to a Democratic administration -- so it alone can deliver our asses to the big dogs who own the country. In the big picture it's always about who gets to deliver the money to the Wall Street hyena pack.

Americans may be starting to get the big picture about politics, money and corporate power. But I doubt it....

The bad news, which the Obama administration openly acknowledges, is this: Unemployment will in all likelihood go higher. And nobody on earth knows how to reduce it (although no one in the administration is about to acknowledge that). The factories are all but gone and they are not coming back. Not unless American workers are willing to work 13 hours a day for two Chinese yuan an hour, which is about 31 cents. What US factories remain are laying workers off due to high interest rates, and waiting for a lower interest rate policy before deciding if it is feasible to call any workers back into production.

During their wait they can watch hell freeze over. Banks know a fatter hog when they see it. And that hog is the consumer credit business (nobody has figured out yet that consumers need paychecks before they can consume anything, on credit or otherwise ). To that end the Federal Reserve has logically set a low interest rate policy. And in true accordance with banking logic, the banks took the Fed's money, then raised the annual percentage rate (APR) on credit card purchases and cash advances and on balances that have a penalty rate because of late payment. Next they raised the late fee. What the hell? If Americans are on the ropes, struggling to make their payments on time, then the logical thing to do is to stick it to them. Bleed 'em for all they're worth. It's an American free market tradition. We the people do not complain. We expect no mercy. America is a business and the American concept of business is pure ruthlessness.

A Deutsche Bank analyst tells me a near term worst is yet to come. Bank failures and home foreclosures have not peaked. A commercial real estate bust is coming down the pike. He says that, while there will be some minor periodic upswings, the fraudulent value of the dollar is now evident as it falls against every other currency, even the Russian ruble (13%), except those unlucky enough to be pegged to the US dollar. As former Assistant Secretary of Treasury Paul Craig Roberts says: "What sort of recovery is it when the safest investment an American can make is to bet against the US dollar?" My Deutsche Bank friend, who is younger and has a family to think about, has taken what he considers more appropriate action. He's buying gold and moving to an undeveloped Central American country.

But Mr. Bernanke assures us that the worst is indeed over. Despite the outside world's serious doubts, but Bernanke's announcement just might fly in the U.S. We believe whatever our Ministry of Truth tells us. We believed that debt was wealth, didn't we? And we believed in WMDs, and have come to believe warfare is a prerequisite to peace.

The saddest thing is that Americans are cultivated like mushrooms from birth to death, kept in the dark and fed horseshit.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Packing for Montana

As reported in today's Washington Post, in an article entitled "In Debate Over Nation's Growing Debt, a Surplus of Worry."

Leonard Burman, [a Syracuse University ] economist, says he has developed a computer model that shows that a "catastrophic budget failure" is a possibility.

"I try not to get too depressed, because if I really thought it was going to play out the way this model works, I would just move to a cabin in Montana and stockpile gold and guns," he says.

Putting Christ Back into Georgetown

My final column in today's Hoya is a seasonal (and perhaps perennial) lament over the displacement of Christ for other gods - particularly Mammon - both symbolically and in the daily practice of Georgetown University.

Indeed, things are worse than I thought (and I thought they were bad to start with): the student editors of the paper made several changes to the piece, one quite egregious. Where I had written (about the new campus building of the business school) "We might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon," the editor added at the end of the sentence, "— the biblical personification of wealth and greed." When I asked for the condescending definition of the obvious be removed, I was informed that the student editors found the reference obscure and had needed to look up the definition of the word. These are students at one of the best universities in the United States, who apparently had never heard of Mammon - a common piece of cultural and Biblical inheritance that was once intuitively understood by nearly anyone with even the most basic cultural (including Biblical) literacy no more than a quarter-century ago. Today's students may not know the name of the very God that too often they worship.

In any event, here is the column as originally written:


In recent years, there has been an effort by Christians of different stripes to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Noting the ubiquity of the anodyne phrase “Happy Holidays” – even when a holiday (or “Holy Day”) greeting is exchanged between Christians – something of a movement has been launched to insist that Christ remain the central focus of Advent and Christmas.

A similar effort is needed at Georgetown, a place that should by all rights have little difficulty making Christ the central focus of its campus life. I have been thinking this in particular in recent weeks as I daily pass the Hariri Building, noting with disappointment that not a single religious image was incorporated on its vast exterior. In comparison to the great and noble campus buildings of Healy, White-Gravenor and Copley Halls – which are richly adorned with religious iconography, in acknowledgment of the Catholic character of the university – we might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon.

However, if our newest building evinces no external acknowledgement of the university’s Catholic identity, this is hardly a radically new development. It is striking that the campus of the nation’s first Catholic and Jesuit University should have such a dearth of images or icons devoted to Jesus or the Saints of the Church. Even worse: where apparently there were once symbols, at some point some were removed. An old photo of the Main Stairway in Healy Hall shows there was once a bust of the Sacred Heart of Jesus centrally on display on the landing between the floors. This was once a prominent space displaying the image of Jesus; one is hard pressed to think of any currently significant campus space where a statue or image of Jesus is present. As for other icons: in the porticos at the front of Healy’s main entrance – where today there are two unremarkable urns – there were to be statues of John Carroll and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The University has been exceedingly active putting up self-congratulatory video displays and expensive media equipment in the Hariri Building, but has lost interest in meaningfully filling prominently empty sacred spaces elsewhere on campus.

Of course, such religious iconography would be meaningless without the accompanying practice that such symbols are meant to reinforce. Daily afternoon mass in Dahlgren chapel is exceedingly sparsely attended. Might attendance increase with the exemplary presence of various campus leaders and faculty, demonstrating that there is no meeting or lunch appointment more important than daily communion? What of encouraging the restoration of the norm of beginning classes in prayer? And should we not create a new administrative position devoted to the mission of hiring Catholic faculty, or faculty with a strong interest in and dedication to the Catholic identity of Georgetown? We seem to have an administrator for nearly every activity of the University, but not this centrally critical facet in the ongoing life and character of the institution.

What of incorporating in a prominent and serious way the teachings of the Catholic “Theology of the Body” (so beautifully articulated by Pope John Paul II) in our first-year orientation activities, in contrast to most campuses where a more mechanistic theory of sexuality reigns? And what of devoting occasional space on the University website – where we regularly call attention to students who have been awarded various honors and awards – to proudly acknowledge the decision of some of our extraordinary students to enter the priesthood or the convent? I have known several young men in recent years who have decided to enter the Jesuit order and at least one young woman who is a novitiate in the Dominican order – why do they receive no official acknowledgment or place of pride in our public pronouncements?

Georgetown, aspiring to mimic its religiously disaffiliated peers, today shies away from firm identification with its faith tradition. But, by dint of drift, it finds itself increasingly unable – much like its academic peers – to address the pervasive utilitarianism and materialism of our day. Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends – whether in economics, politics, sexuality or biotechnology. Our main political alignments are no great help in stemming this tendency, with the Right endorsing unfettered economic utilitarianism and the Left defending reproductive and bio-technological utilitarianism. Today, it is increasingly only the firmly grounded religious traditions – and above all, Catholicism – that resists this great and nearly unstoppable philosophic trajectory of modernity. Far from being ashamed of our grounding in this great tradition, we should embrace and commend it for a broken world. Putting Christ back into Christmas is to commend His presence one day a year; putting Christ back into Georgetown is to exemplify a year-round commitment and life-long devotion by a community of witnesses.

Friday, December 4, 2009


From today's edition of Inside Higher Education:

In remarks kicking off a White House forum on job creation and the economy, President Obama repeatedly stressed the role of higher education. "I want to hear about what unions and universities can do to better support and prepare our workers -- not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs five years from now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now," he said. "We still have the best universities in the world. We've got some of the finest science and technology in the world, we've got the most entrepreneurial spirit in the world, and we've got some of the most productive workers in the world." The Obama discussion of job creation continues today when the president will visit Lehigh Carbon Community College

The nation's universities have already implicitly justified their existence - and expense - to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers. Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a "Career Services Center" (by contrast, there is no "Family Preparation" or "Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor" centers). Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.

President Obama has taken seriously his responsibility to use the "bully pulpit" (indeed, he seems at times more prone to jawbone problems than take the lead in actually advancing real solutions). Admirably, his wife has set a good example by growing an organic garden on the White House lawn - "the most important plot of land in America," according to Wendell Berry in his recent interview with Diane Rehm. But the President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation. This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.

Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the "liberal arts." The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty. That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings. Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage). By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.

The current emphasis on "career preparation" is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts, and can only further damage the frayed and perhaps irreparably degraded moral fabric of the nation. This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students: a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose - a job, or more narrowly, "money-making" - and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.

The President has spoken on occasion in tones of moral condemnation over the behavior that precipitated the economic crisis, yet out of the other side of his mouth further promotes the mindset - and an educational emphasis - that would only deepen the preconditions that led to the economic crisis. A people formed with dedicated devotion to utilitarian and narrowly financial calculation, combined with extreme privatism of orientation, is the fertile ground from which just such financial chicanery and irresponsible indebtedness arises. Does he not have a sensible and liberally educated advisor in his circle that help him come to this realization? Given how many of his advisors come from our "elite" institutions - the Princetons, Harvards and Yales of the nation - and how deeply the orientation of these institutions has for a long time been precisely guided by such narrowly and perversely utilitarian aims, there can be little hope that he can be dissuaded from his mission of further destroying our institutions of higher learning. Indeed, it could even be said that those people who once would have graduated from these institutions for jobs on Wall Street are now instead flooding the halls of our governmental buildings in Washington D.C. What they have recently done for our financial system, surely they are aiming to advance through the public purse.