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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you: carol@geraniumfarm.org

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Magna Carta and America

Our annual July 4 commentaries on the American Revolution seek to highlight the role of common people in the Revolutionary process:  women who refused to buy household goods imported from Britain, a local blacksmith in western Massachusetts who led an early sit-in-type revolt against British authorities in that region, lay people who discovered they could preach during the associated Great Awakening period.

This year, 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and that event has a link with common people and contributes to the American Revolution.  Thus, it can be our topic for this year's Revolution article.   The agreement between King John and a group of barons was sealed on June 15; this very first document was a group of "Articles of the Barons".  It was recast and publicized on June 19 as "Magna Carta", the Great Charter.  Just last Monday, June 15, 2015, there was a special commemoration at Runnymede, and you have also perhaps read articles about the document which have already appeared in major press outlets.  Obviously, I am not a historian, but on such a propitious occasion, I would offer some thoughts.

Some of these current commentaries want us to downplay the role of Magna Carta, and writers of those might take issue that I link the document to "common people".   Those critics are in fact correct:  we cannot say that Magna Carta marked the foundation of democracy, nor that it represented a granting of freedom to "common people".  Not at all.  What it did was exact from a ruler an official statement that the position of ruler was itself subject to expressed laws, that the actions of the ruler could not be arbitrary and that the ruler could not impose indiscriminate demands or fees on those ruled.  In the very beginning on June 15, 1215, the document applied to "any baron", an elite group, to be sure.  But the scope widened immediately: just days later, on June 19, this became "any freeman".[1]  While broader than just the 40 barons, the group "freemen" was still not very large; the vast majority of people came under various conditions of feudal servitude.  Then, in the 1350s, during the reign of Edward III, "Six Statutes" were enacted by Parliament that included the phrasing "no man of what Estate or Condition that he be, shall be put out of Land or Tenement, nor taken nor imprisoned, nor disinherited, nor put to Death, without being brought in Answer by due Process of the Law."[2]  Thus, virtually everyone would now benefit, and even common people had rights that had to be respected by rulers.

There's another important phrase in that quote, of course:  "due Process of the Law".  While those exact words are not in Magna Carta, the concept is.  In Article 39, it says, "No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land."  So here is the invention of "due process".  Article 40 further exerts a "rule of law": "To no one shall we sell, to no one shall we deny or delay right or justice."  Defendants can't get off by paying a bribe, nor can anyone be held because they can't pay one.  Note that from the beginning, from Magna Carta itself, such even-handed dispensing of justice applied to everyone, with no restriction to "barons" or "freemen".[3]

There is at least one other major item in Magna Carta.  The barons were upset with King John because of the sudden and arbitrary imposition of "aids" and the high rates of "scutage" he demanded.  Scutage is a fee a baron could pay instead of providing military service.  John spent lots of money, but he lost lands and other resources in his conduct of various wars and battles.  The barons wanted some protection from his consequently exorbitant takings.  Thus, Article 12 reads, "No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm."  And Article 14 goes on to outline how representatives of the realm would be chosen for and given adequate notice of meetings to design the required funding orders.  This part was not particularly democratic in construct, but it still formulated the operation of "no taxation without representation".

Colonists arrived in North America carrying these rights with them.  In writing.  Every one of the 13 colonies was organized as a "company" granted land and legal right by the Crown.[4]  This was implemented through a "charter".  The charters included clauses with some phrase granting due process of law.  And more explicitly, they included statements that the settlers and their descendants were entitled to the ancient rights of English people.  The charter of the Virginia company was quite explicit: The emigrants and their children "shall have and enjoy Liberties, Franchises, Immunities, . . . as if they had been abiding and born, within our Realm of England."  In Massachusetts Bay in 1629, the Charter said settlers would "have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and naturall subjects . . . as yf they and everie one them were borne within the Realm of England."  These Charters thus granted the rights of English citizens to the colonists, and they also established the practice of written constitutions.

American colonists' reliance on Magna Carta is easily illustrated in a statement that Ben Franklin made to Parliament during the wrangle over the Stamp Act.  Franklin, a representative for Massachusetts in the Royal Court in London, "was hauled in front of Parliament and asked on what basis he called for the repeal of the Stamp Act.  The colonists, he answered, could not 'be taxed but by their common consent [. . . based on their rights] as Englishmen as declared by Magna Carta.'"[5]

Several contemporary writers indeed point out that the Magna Carta seems more revered in the U.S. than in Britain.  One in particular is a British member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article[6], he says, “Magna Carta has always been a bigger deal in the U.S.”  He explains that the site at Runnymede went unmarked until 1957, and when a memorial stone was finally erected, it was the American Bar Association who sponsored it.

A New York Times writer, Sarah Lyall, highlights further the longstanding importance of the Magna Carta here.[7]  Just last month, she explains, the Supreme Court cited Article 40 in one of its own decisions, on judicial integrity:  “Upholding a Florida law that forbids judges to solicit campaign contributions, Chief Justice Roberts … wrote: ‘This principle dates back at least eight centuries to Magna Carta.’”  Lyall further quotes William Hubbard, current president of the American Bar Association: “The idea that the law comes from the people, and it’s not the law of the king, is fundamental.”

Thus, while governments changed and revolutions occurred in England and in America, the principles set forth in Magna Carta not only live on but assist in our government and in protection of common people to this day.  Lyall quotes Hubbard in conclusion, “To think that those principles have survived 800 years gives me great hope for the future.”

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[1] U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.  "Magna Carta and Its American Legacy".  www.archives.gov/exhitits/featured_documents/magna_carta/legacy.html. Accessed June 5, 2015.

[2] Ralph V. Turner.  "The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215." History Today. Volume 53, Issue 9, September 2003.  Reprinted on http://www.historytoday.com/ralph-v-turner/meaning-magna-carta-1215.  Accessed June 20, 2015.

[3] All quotations of actual paragraphs of the Magna Carta come from Nicholas Vincent: Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. Pages 111 to 124.  There are 63 paragraphs in the original document, one of which, number 35, actually establishes a standard size for a glass of wine, "namely the London quarter," and also standard measures of cloth.

[4] Matthew Shaw.  "Early America and Magna Carta".  British Library:  http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/early-america-and-magna-carta.  Accessed June 22, 2015.

[5] Shaw, op.cit.

[6] Daniel Hannan.  “Magna Carta: Eight Centuries of Liberty.” The Wall Street Journal.  May 29, 2015.  www.wsj.com/articles/magna-carta-eight-centuries-of-liberty-1432912022


[7] Sarah Lyall.  “Magna Carta, Still Posing a Challenge at 800.”  The New York Times. June 14, 2015.  http://nyti.ms/1QYLYGs.


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Prayers after the Shootings in the South Carolina Church

A week ago, a young man shot nine African-American people in cold blood in a church in Charlston, South Carolina.  We interrupted work we were doing to send an email to Ways-of-the-World readers.  As the funerals for these dear people are about to begin, we post much of the text of that email here.  Note that this was written just as people were first hearing about this awful act.

My own Bishop, Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island, has responded immediately, and I write just now to share his message with you all.

"From the Office of the Bishop  
The BBC reported this morning at 8 am, EDT [June 17], that "Nine people have been shot dead at a historic African-American Church in Charleston, SC, and a hunt is under way for a white gunman. 

Police described the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a 'hate crime.' 

They issued surveillance images of the suspect and said he had sat in the church for an hour before opening fire.
____________________________________

Bishop Provenzano sends the following Pastoral Message to the clergy and members of the Diocese of Long Island: 

Prayer.  Deep, deep, soul-stirring prayer for the victims,  their families, their church community, the city of Charleston, and for this nation! 

Words can no longer suffice for the senseless hatred of this sinful act. Prayer and the witness of prayer by God's people must be our response. 

I call upon our Diocese to pray with each other across parish lines, and neighborhood lines, and county lines.

Hold each other in prayer and witness to the unity in Christ we profess. 

This is our response to hatred and sin.

The Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano  
Bishop of Long Island

Also included in that message is a note from the Brooklyn Borough President's office, which contains the information that among the dead is the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

May Rev. Pinckney and all those killed rest in peace.  May light perpetual shine upon them.

+ + + + +

As we write this afternoon, June 24, Rev. Pinckney lies in state in the South Carolina Capitol Building.


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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Earth Day and the Industrial Revolution in 3 Graphs

It's Earth Day.  Or it was three days ago.  But what we write is still relevant to the season.  In any event, why would we begin with a picture of world population growth?  Well, the number of people on Earth should have an obvious connection to Earth Day.  But the key to the immediate connection we want to highlight is the blue line in the graph showing the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  A neighbor of mine, a gentleman who's fairly in-the-know about economic issues, stopped me on the street the other day to ask if I understood how much difference the Industrial Revolution made to the world's population.  He had just learned this, he explained, in an online course he had taken, and he was stunned.  So I figure if Steve is stunned, maybe some of you are too.  So here's some of the story and why we pay particular attention on Earth Day.  It's not just the numbers of people, but their standards of living that matter.


The key is the bend in line.   The world's population was basically flat from the year 1 A.D. to 500 A.D. at about 200 million people; estimates show that by 1000 A.D., it was still no more than 250-300 million.  Population reached about 500 million by 1500 and 1 billion in 1800.  Now, just 215 years later, there are about 7.2 billion people.  The addition of the last half of that, 3.6 billion, has taken only 45 years.  So clearly some very dramatic things happened around and after 1800.

We often think of the Industrial Revolution in terms of the cotton gin and other machinery, but advances in health care and public facilities are also important.  As examples, Edward Jenner's small pox vaccine came in 1798.  John Wilkinson, an Englishman, developed the iron pipe that made a new water supply system in Paris in 1786.   John Snow realized in 1854 that contaminated water could contribute to the spread of cholera.  Before this period, life expectancy at birth hovered around 24 years in the medieval period and got to 35 in England by the mid-18th Century.  By 1900, it reached the late-40s and was about 80 years in 2010.  In other words, death rates declined markedly.  This is so all over the world.

At the same time, birth rates have also declined.  This latter factor has been pronounced enough that population growth rates have actually moderated in recent decades.  Big as the numbers are, they are no longer accelerating.

Robert Lucas, a consulting economist to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, has written about these birth and death rate trends.  As the Industrial Revolution took place, along with accompanying gains in agricultural output and the improvements to health, population did expand dramatically.  The gains in production supported the population growth.  Thomas Malthus and other economists of his day – around 1800 – began to fear that this population growth trend would consume much of the earth's resources, leading to increased poverty.  While there is quite justified concern over that eventuality, Lucas offers some mitigating notions.

At the outset of the industrial and agricultural revolutions during the 18th Century, most of society was agricultural, and as farmers obtained larger yields for their crops and had healthier animals, they used their increased income to enlarge their families, so they could produce bigger crops still.  Living standards – income per person – thus didn't change much at first.   From 1700 to 1820, world GDP firmed from 0.2% growth per year to about 0.5%.  But population had almost the same movement, so each person was associated with about $665 worth of output in 1820, only mildly larger than the $596 in 1600.

But starting around 1820, that relationship shifted.  Those health improvements we mentioned before, clean water and similar improvements to sewage disposal, made conditions much better in cities and people began moving to them and doing more industrial work.  This coincided with diminishing birth rates, enough so that total production gains were associated with more production per person; by 1900, that had nearly doubled to $1,260.  By 2008, the latest year for which we have this specific calculation, world output per person was just over $7,600, as seen here.


We're writing about all this because it's Earth Day.  What is the connection?  As the line in the above graph was moving definitively higher in the early 1960s, a marine biologist named Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that grabbed everyone's attention about how more people were using more of the earth's resources, much of that in an ironically unhealthy way.  For the first time, many people came to understand that they could not just plow ahead unconcerned about what they were doing to the earth and its environment.  Would this new realization slow growth?

It took some time, but progress in making the right use of the earth is taking place.  Robert Lucas, in the material we reference here, counters some environmental naysayers' arguments by highlighting the role of technology.  He points out that we should use a theory of economic growth that embodies not just numbers of people and amounts of consumption, but the application of technology, ingenuity and adaptability.

This notion prompted us to check out the amount of energy used in producing today's GDP compared to some historical period.  If GDP growth just uses more and more energy resources, then the naysayers will be right; succeeding generations of people will indeed be less well off because pure air, clean water and all kinds of material resources will be scarcer for everyone.

What we found with some brief searching, is just 20 years' worth of information on this.  But it tells a positive, hopeful story.  Data from the World Bank show that a fixed unit of energy would yield $5.40 of world GDP in 1990.  By 2010, the same amount of energy made $7.20 of GDP. 


Further, in 1990, each dollar of GDP was associated with 0.5 kilogram of carbon emissions, but in 2010, this had fallen to 0.4 kilogram.  Energy use per person has increased for the world as a whole, but this is happening in middle income regions in Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa, not in high income regions.  In fact, in many places per capita energy use has gone down; in the U.S., for example, each person used 7,700 kilograms of energy in 1990, but just over 7,000 kilograms in 2011.

So perhaps Lucas is correct.  If we know and understand a situation, we can quite probably find ways to deal with it.   Thus, growth can continue to the extent that we become more efficient in using energy, and we can even develop new energy sources and/or improve the way we manage current sources.  We can further reduce pollution without severely restricting our general ways of life.  This isn't automatic, and we have to be mindful and deliberate in our efforts, but we have a good shot at continuing to improve our lives and the life of the Earth itself.

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Sources:
Robert Lucas.  "The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future." Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Annual Report Essay, 2003 Annual Report, published May 1, 2004.  https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/annual-reports/the-industrial-revolution-past-and-future.  Accessed April 24, 2015.

Eric McLamb.  "The Ecological Impact of the Industrial Revolution".  Ecology Global Network.  September 18, 2011.  http://www.ecology.com/2011/09/18/ecological-impact-industrial-revolution.  Accessed April 24, 2015.  Also see McLamb's Earth Day commentary from 2014: "Earth Day and the Human Revolution"  http://www.ecology.com/2014/04/22/earth-day-human-revolution/.  Accessed April 24, 2015.

Long-term historical data on population and world GDP are based on Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective.  Paris, France: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  2001 and 2006.  http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/the-world-economy_9789264022621-en.  A pdf may be purchased or the book may be read in an e-book format on that site.  Barnes & Noble and Amazon also have it available.

Maddison was professor at the University of Groningen from 1978 to 1997 and a founder of the Groningen Growth and Development Centre.  He passed away in 2010.  His data are recognized as the primary compilation of long-term world-wide GDP and other economic and demographic indicators; they are now maintained and made available in spreadsheets on a site managed by his colleagues at that research center  http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm.

Data on the relationship of energy to GDP, energy use per person and carbon emissions come from the World Bank's World Development Indicators.  The 2015 edition of these was published just on April 14, 2015, and includes these energy data through 2011.  See http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.6 "Energy production and use" and http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.8 "Energy dependency, efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions".  Accessed April 24, 2015.


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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Businesses, Religion and the Law

Religious freedom.  We've learned during the last ten days or so just how complex that notion can be.  Enactment of a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – RFRA – in Indiana didn't bring praise from Indiana churches, but instead outcries from the gay rights community that the law would evoke discrimination of them in the Hoosier State.  Elsewhere, on March 27, a woman in Richland, Washington, had a summary judgment imposed on her by the State of Washington because she would not, according to her Southern Baptist beliefs and practices, furnish the flowers for the wedding of two men.  There are other examples and the whole controversy feels totally ironic in this Easter Season.  We want to go through some of the history of the broader issues to understand them better; as you know, I'm an economist, not a lawyer or historian, so I hope what follows is as accurate as possible.

Pilgrims came to this land 395 years ago because they wanted to worship differently and live by different rubrics than those required at that time by the Church of England.  One hundred and seventy-one years later, in 1791, the concept that the people of the United States could worship as they choose was written down officially in the Constitution's First Amendment.  Congress cannot "establish" an official religion, nor can it "[prohibit] the free exercise thereof".  Indeed, this is the first item in the First Amendment, ahead of freedoms of speech, of the press, of association and petitioning the government.

In 1947, a Supreme Court ruling extended the First Amendment applications of the "establishment clause" from just federal government relations with religions to those of state governments.[1]  In that ruling, the State of New Jersey was allowed to pay for transportation of children to parochial schools, under the logic that everyone benefited when children could get to a school.  The payments from the state did not violate the "establishment" provision of the Amendment; they were seen as supporting the children, not the religion itself.

Then, in 1990, the State of Oregon refused to give unemployment benefits to two Native Americans because they had been fired for cause from their jobs at a drug treatment center: they had smoked peyote in a religious ceremony.[2]  The Supreme Court agreed with Oregon, that the use of the hallucinogenic drug was absolutely prohibited by state law.  This case elicited an offsetting response from the U.S. Congress in 1993, as it enacted the federal government's "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" – RFRA.[3]  However, in 1997, after yet another Supreme Court test[4], it was found that this law applied only to the federal government, not to states.  So state legislatures began enacting their owns RFRAs; before the latest controversies, 19 states had these laws.   The need for such state laws apparently became more acute after the Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014; this said that closely held corporations as well as individuals, can assert religious rights.  It, of course, pertained to the contraception provisions in the Affordable Care Act.  Other small businesses now are relying on the federal RFRA as they argue that their religious views mean they shouldn't provide goods and services for same-sex weddings, but these and other religious practices may actually depend on the existence of state-level RFRAs, which prompted Indiana and Arkansas to want to pass them.[5]

Howard Friedman, writing in the Washington Post last week[6], indicates that the surge of gay rights and rapidly spreading legalization of gay marriage in particular in recent years has contributed to the brouhaha over these two latest states' laws.  Some states, including Washington, have anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT persons that may trump the assertion of religious rights.  Indiana has limited versions of anti-discrimination laws, while it appears that Arkansas has none.[7]

The commotion over the Indiana and Arkansas laws, while unexpected, has in fact helped improve the legislation and those legislatures have quickly passed statements that try to make clear that their RFRA laws do not constitute license for people and businesses to shunt aside associations and transactions with LGBT individuals.

All this seems to leave some business owners in a quandary.  And me, too, actually.  Let's go back to the florist in Richland, Washington, Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene's Flowers.  She seems stuck.  The Washington State anti-discrimination law is evidently quite clear that businesses engaged in "public accommodation" cannot "[c]harge a different rate or offer different terms and conditions of service" to groups of people designated in the law, which include "sexual orientation or gender identity".[8]  But the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Ms. Stutzman belongs, is one religious group that continues to oppose gay marriage, along with the United Methodist Church, many American Baptist churches, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Mormons and the Roman Catholic Church, among others.[9]  Her immediate response has been to stop providing flowers for all weddings, and that would appear to satisfy the law's requirements of treating all customers the same way.  Otherwise, it would seem that in order to follow strictly her belief in her own church's position, she would even have to close or to move to a state where gay marriage is not [yet] acceptable.  Indeed, the hoopla in Indiana over the pizzeria whose owner responded to a newspaper survey that it could not furnish food for a gay wedding reception did cause it to close, although it was set to reopen today and wound up being supported by huge donations to a totally independent crowdfunding site – at least one of which donations came from a gay woman who operates her own small business.[10]

So religious freedom is complex.  It is impossible for specific pieces of legislation to allow for all the divergent possibilities, which, as we see, involve different Christian groups with different interpretations of Scripture along with other religions' practices, amid the shifting structures of secular society.  "Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order."[11]  "Thus, the right to have religious beliefs is absolute, but the freedom to act on such beliefs is not absolute."[12]  At least in the United States of America, though, we do strive to do it right and to encompass everyone's beliefs.

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[1] Everson v. Board of Education (1947).  Cited in Wikipedia's discussion of the First Amendment to the Constitution: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution and described more fully in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everson_v._Board_of_Education, both accessed April 7, 2015.

[2] Employment Division v. Smith (1990).  Cited and explained in Ashby Jones, "Unpacking Indiana's 'Religious Freedom Law'", The Wall Street Journal, Law Blog, March 30, 2015.  http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2015/03/30/unpacking-indianas-religious-freedom-law/.  Accessed April 7, 2015.

[3] Ashby Jones, op. cit., and Howard M. Friedman, "10 things you need to know to really understand RFRA in Indiana and Arkansas," The Washington Post, April 1, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/04/01/10-things-you-need-to-know-to-really-understand-rfra-in-indiana-and-arkansas/.  Accessed April 7, 2015, originally referred by an entry on The Episcopal Café:  http://www.episcopalcafe.com/indiana-passes-rfra-fix/ .

[4] City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) Cited in Ashby Jones, op. cit.

[5] Mike Pence, "Ensuring Religious Freedom in Indiana", The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2015.  http://www.wsj.com/articles/mike-pence-ensuring-religious-freedom-in-indiana-1427757799. Accessed April 7, 2015.  Yes, that's the Governor of Indiana, writing in a WSJ op-ed.

[6] Friedman, op. cit.


[8] Washington State Human Rights Commission, "Washington State Law Prohibits Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation", http://www.hum.wa.gov/documents/Brochures/PA091407B.pdf.  Accessed April 7, 2015.

[9] Pew Research Center, "Where Christian churches, other religions stand on gay marriage," March 18, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/18/where-christian-churches-stand-on-gay-marriage/.  For other background, also see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/25/how-the-u-s-compares-with-the-rest-of-the-world-on-religious-restrictions/, March 25, and http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/03/30/businesses-serving-same-sex-couples/, March 30.  All accessed April 7, 2015.  The last item, survey results on what people believe about whether business should be required to serve gay couples shows a break in public sentiment of 49% for requiring them to do so and 47% that businesses should be allowed to refuse such services.  The text mentions two court cases, a baker in Oregon and a photographer in New Mexico.  The text also shows a demographic breakdown of the survey results.


[11] Reynolds v. United States (1878).  Cited in the Wikipedia article on the First Amendment.  See footnote 1 above.

[12] Wikipedia article on the First Amendment.  See footnote 1 above.

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For more background on the underlying issue of gay rights, religion, and business practices see Michael Kent Curtis, "A Unique Religious Exemption from Antidiscrimination Laws in the Case of Gays?  Putting the Call for Exemption for Those Who Discriminate Against Married or Marrying Gays in Context", Wake Forest Law Review, April 5, 2012.  http://wakeforestlawreview.com/2012/04/a-unique-religious-exemption-from-antidiscrimination-laws-in-the-case-of-gays-putting-the-call-for-exemptions-for-those-who-discriminate-against-married-or-marrying-gays-in-context/ Accessed April 6, 2015.  In a lengthy analysis, Curtis draws the analogy to racial desegregation, which some had argued in the 1950s also faced religious constraints.


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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Toward Some Understanding of ISIS

We write today to urge you to do some reading, the Graeme Wood article in the new issue of The Atlantic "What ISIS Really Wants".  Perhaps you are well ahead of us and have in fact already read it.   Here is a link to it:  http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/ .  Further, just today (February 24), Mr. Wood has posted a follow-up of responses to the article from people he originally interviewed and from others.  Here's that link: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants-reader-response-atlantic/385710/.

We were inspired to plow through the lengthy piece in part by the Obama Administration's care to avoid referring to ISIS as "radical Islamists" or even religiously motivated.  So the publication of some thoughtful discussion defining the background and goals of ISIS looked to be helpful.  And it does seem that fundamentalist Islam is exactly what ISIS is about, according to Mr. Wood's commentary.   The term "fundamentalist" is not used here in any judgmental sense, but as a pure description of a group that takes the Koran and the words of Muhammad quite literally.

Wood further describes that ISIS is concerned mainly with a specific territory in Syria and Iraq, not with capturing or destroying other parts of the world.  So, for instance, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in December was not an ISIS event, but apparently led by an al Qaeda affiliate.  Control over specific territory is part of the definition of the caliphate ISIS believes it is, so taking action in places far removed from that location is less important to their mission.  Eventually, spreading the caliphate across the world is important, but only as an outward movement from their present position.

State Department spokespeople have also suggested that the most effective way to put down the evil of ISIS may well lie in social and economic programs to promote the welfare of its people, to create job opportunities for them perhaps.  We would agree with that to some extent.  If the populace of the ISIS region were prosperous, they might be less interested in fighting against people they see as enemies.  However, Wood's material makes clear that economics is well down the list of ISIS priorities.  Its priorities are better defined by religious rubrics and Sharia social arrangements.  We'd guess that its adherents are genuinely less interested in material prosperity and in devising projects to bring that about.

Finally, among the highlights we emphasize for you here,  Wood suggests that the Obama Administration approach using air strikes and "proxy warfare" may well be the best way to wear ISIS down.  A major armed invasion, rather than scaring them, could actually please them: they believe an apocalypse is coming and a huge onrush of Western troops might simply signal the start of that process.

We don't know enough to express reasoned opinions on these views, but at least they now have some context and definition.  If you have more elaborate thoughts, please do share them.  We ourselves are left, this Lenten season, with a simple sentence that has been personal to us since 9/11:  "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."


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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Putting a Face on Economic Inequality

Perhaps you have read the press coverage over the past couple of weeks about James Robertson, a factory worker in Rochester Hills, Michigan.  Until two weekends ago, James walked every day, Monday through Friday, from his home in Detroit to the factory, a total hike for him of 21 miles a day.  He also traveled some segments of his commute on buses, but they did not cover the whole route.  James had had a car, a 1988 Honda, but it broke down irreparably in 2005, and since he could not afford a replacement, he began his daily walking routine.  Despite the burden, Robertson has had perfect attendance at work for 12 years, rain, snow, whatever.

Over time, Blake Pollock, a bank vice president who passed Robertson frequently, noticed this hardy walker along a road where there obviously weren't very many pedestrians.  He began picking Robertson up, and they became friendly.  Then, young Evan Leedy, a computer science student at Wayne State University, learned about Robertson and set up a crowd-funding site to raise some money to buy him a car.  The hope was that they'd get about $5,000 to purchase some good, reliable used one.  Instead, there is about $350,000.  A story appeared in the Detroit Free Press, and in the wake of all the interest,  a car dealer donated a 2015 Ford Taurus.  Leedy and Robertson were to have met last week with financial advisors to set up trust accounts for maintaining the car and its associated expenses.

Robertson's job pays $10.55 an hour, well above Michigan's minimum wage of $8.15 an hour but not nearly enough for him to buy, maintain and insure a car in Detroit.  According to one insurance information website, Detroit has the highest car insurance rates of any city in the country.  Those of us in New York and some other major cities have no real appreciation for the life turmoil that can ensue when one's car breaks down in car-centered locales.  We have access to prolific public transportation; they don't.  The only thing they can do is walk.

This Is Exactly What Trinity Institute Was About
We relate this story after attending Trinity Institute in late January.  The vignette highlights exactly the kinds of people whose situations constituted much of the discussion there.  As we noted in our preview post, the subject was income inequality; speakers mainly emphasized concerns over those at the low end of the income spectrum.

In our example here, Robertson is distinctive for getting befriended by people with sufficient means to help him out of his tough circumstances.  Such personal attention is surely rare for folks in his position.  A Trinity speaker, Rachel Held Evans, a blogger on these issues, highlighted the fact that she herself has befriended a couple of people in a low-income range.  Getting to know them closely gives her a special appreciation for them as individuals just like herself but with the extra burdens of trying to get along with insufficient resources.  It brings the poverty issue into sharp relief, rather than confining it to the vague picture one gets just reading tables of numbers.

Some Commentary on What Being Poor Means
Numbers and lists can be helpful, though.  Barbara Ehrenreich's presentation brought us surprise and even shock as she listed a collection of local ordinances in cities and states around the country that interfere with the public's treatment of the homeless.  In some Florida cities, for instance, it is illegal to share one's own food with homeless people on the street or in a park.  Ms. Ehrenreich, who noted that she is not a religious believer, expressed the opinion that such regulations hardly seem Christian to her.  We all agreed, and quite audibly so.  When introducing Ms. Ehrenreich, Robert Scott, the director of Trinity Institute, spoke favorably of the fact that her book Nickel and Dimed remains a familiar read on these issues even 14 years after its publication.  Ehrenreich replied that while she is gratified that the book is still read, she is very unhappy indeed that the problems and circumstances she describes there in fact remain relevant after such a long time.  We again agreed.  Further, some local jails actually bill inmates for room and board expenses.  Would you believe??

Her presentation was part of a session on "class" matters; she was obviously emphasizing the difficulties that attend being poor, that is, the simple lack of sufficient income.  One of the panelists, R. R. "Rusty" Reno, editor of First Things, further argued that class comes first, that is, social position and one's cultural orientation.  Without sufficient "social capital", people cannot be permanently lifted out of economic poverty.  He was especially concerned about families headed by single mothers.  Few agreed with this viewpoint, especially Reno's comments about single parenthood.  Still, our own reading and even some material we've written here indicate that such two parents in a home are important in the improvement of the whole family's station in life. 

These arguments  brought the discussion to what might be done to lift the lower classes into better life positions.  Education holds a key place here.  On the Friday evening, we watched Robert Reich's film Inequality for All, after which he answered questions from his office in Berkeley, California, via Skype.  He suggests that most education efforts focus on advanced, graduate-level work, and not enough on ordinary schooling for young children.  We need education of all kinds.  At the Saturday morning session on what we can do about inequality, Nicole Baker Fulgham added weight to those views on education, much as her work which we cited here in early December relative to the racial concerns over the killing of African-Americans by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.

Plentitude Helps Everyone Live More Sustainably
There are other facets to improving quality of life and diminishing economic differences.  Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth, was the keynoter at that Saturday session; she brought attention to innovations in the organization of economic activity, which lead to what she calls "plentitude": collaborative grass roots efforts that involve urban farming, food co-ops, small business financing through crowd-sourcing and credit unions.  In our example above, that crowd-sourcing tool indeed helped James Robertson get his car.  And one of the efforts the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was another of the keynote speakers) has promoted in own his local church-work in Great Britain is credit unions, which can displace ultra-expensive payday lenders.  Other kinds of economic sharing include open-source software, like Linux and Wikipedia, and forms of  transportation, such as car and bicycle-sharing enterprises.

Churches Provide Facilities and Teach About Love
How can the church contribute to all of this?  At Thursday evening's worship service, the Archbishop told us of efforts in Liverpool – one of England's poorest regions – in which the Anglican bishop and the Roman Catholic bishop worked together to set up relief efforts for unemployed coal miners.  At Saturday's panel presentations, Nicole Baker Fulgham explained how the education efforts of her group, the Expectations Project, are centered in churches, where tutoring and after-school activities can take place, which deepen education opportunities.  Other speakers brought us back to Rachel Held Evans's theme of befriending those with different positions in society; churches' outreach efforts make this part-and-parcel of their mission.  At the same time, we were admonished that when we ask questions about people's needs and desires, we have actually to listen to their answers and be prepared to take actions toward their fulfillment.  That's part of "loving our neighbors" and sharing in the Kingdom of God.

Walmart Announces Pay Raises!
And one final note as we were "going to press" with our article, Walmart, the store everyone loves to hate, announced today that they are raising the wages of thousands of their lowest-paid workers and making their work schedules more orderly and predictable.  This will hurt the company's profits in the short-run, but it is in direct response to the current concerns about the income gap.  The Walmart Foundation also announced a parallel plan to work with local community colleges and other nonprofits to increase educational and advancement opportunities for their employees.  Social pressure is having an effect.  We'll talk more about these actions – Walmart isn't the only one – as time goes on.  All of everyone's commentary about inequality is having an impact!

* * * * *

Links to Presentations and Musical Offerings
Our commentary here barely scratches the surface of this powerful conference, which included Cornel West and the Bishop of Panama, among other speakers.  But Trinity Institute does us all the wonderful favor of maintaining videos of presentations and the opening worship service, so you can see it all.  We send you here for a collection: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/videos/ti2015?shs_term_node_tid_depth=677&sort_by=field_display_date_value&sort_order=ASC.

Besides the presentations, be sure to enjoy the choir's anthem at the opening worship: "The Dream Isaiah Saw".  https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/church-anthem-leaves-us-speechless.   Note that its title among the individual links is "Church Anthem Leaves Us Speechless" – and it did!  Also, if you need to be cheered up or have your spirit raised, watch the two Melanie DeMore segments; Ms. DeMore is called a "vocal activist" and she is indeed inspiring.  First, for the Friday morning session, https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/friday-melanie-demore-musical-gathering and second, on Saturday morning,  https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/saturday-melanie-demore-musical-gathering.  Watch the audience each time get into the spirit of Ms. DeMore's songs.  Regarding the very last song, "Standing Stone", perhaps the way we began our discussion here about James Robertson, who walked to work, means that a whole collection of people around the country are "standing stones" for him and they stood by him, wanting to help him get to his job every day.

Finally, just yesterday, February 17, we found more gifts from Trinity Institute in the form of a brand new course from the website ChurchNext.  It features an introduction to plentitude by Juliet Schor and applications from community and church groups.  https://www.churchnext.tv/school/catalog/course/economic-equality-and-the-church-with-trinity-institute-for-groups .  We only just learned about ChurchNext as we were preparing to attend Trinity Institute, and they have numerous courses on a variety of church- and spirituality-related issues; not all of their presenters are Episcopalian, but several denominations are represented, giving a broad perspective.  The cost is quite nominal and the courses are very popular, involving online interaction among participants.  Barbara Crafton even has a course on growing old gracefully, which coordinates with material in her recent book, The Courage to Grow Old.  Check it all out!


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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Trinity Institute on Economic Inequality: a Preview

From this evening, January 22, through Saturday, we will be attending Trinity Institute at Trinity Church in Manhattan.  This year's theme name is Creating Common Good, and the majority of the discussion will be about economic inequality.  Speakers are people you may well have heard of: Cornel West, Juliet Schor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to name a few.

Perhaps some of you are even attending via livestreaming into your own church or other center.  If you are at Trinity Church, let's try to find each other.

Next week, afterward, I will write at least one article on the content.  Friday's speakers highlight the problem of inequality and Saturday's program emphasizes actions to try to ameliorate it, such as better early-childhood education.

Meantime, a couple of facts on the broad topic:

For the five years through 2013, Census Bureau data show the most unequal distribution of income in the 60-year history of their calculations, measured by the so-called Gini Index, a composite gauge of income spread.  The top 5% of households have just over 22% of total money income.  Separate IRS figures show that the vaunted "1%" paid 38% of the income tax in 2012.  Median household income – that is, half of households are above and half below – was $51,939, down 8% in inflation-adjusted terms from the pre-recession level in 2007.  The share of the population with income below the poverty level was 14.5% in 2013.  This is an improvement from the 15% level of the previous three years; but in the mid-2000s, ahead of the recession, the rate hovered around 12.5%.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ("OECD") calculates that through 2012, the U.S. has a wider range of relative income spread, that is, a higher Gini Index, than 19 of the other 21 countries in that group.  Only Mexico and Turkey had showed more inequality in incomes.  All but two countries did experience steady or widening inequality over the previous 25 years, but only four countries showed a larger change than in the U.S.

A couple of our own recent articles have spoken to related issues.  We have noted a decline in labor force participation and an associated phenomenon called "job polarization".  Compared to historical patterns, people seem discouraged from seeking work, and some of that discouragement may be associated with a decrease in job opportunities in the middle-income range, such as factory work and office administration.  At least some post-high-school education or some re-orienting of high school course offerings toward mechanical skills seems needed.  We've also been concerned about poverty, which came to specific attention in the recent police killings.  Answers to this particular poverty situation involve better education as well and some kind of business investment – or at least business interest – in lower-income neighborhoods.

That type of material will be the subjects of Trinity Institute presentations, so we'll see if there are new, helpful solutions in the works.  Stay tuned!
  

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Two New York City Cops Are Killed; Our Local Bishop Speaks

Just over two weeks ago, we posted commentary here [directly below] on the grand jury decisions in the Ferguson and Staten Island police brutality cases not to indict the police officers who killed two presumed criminals they were trying to arrest.  The demonstrations against the police have continued since then, mostly in New York, but also in other cities.  It all came to a head this past Saturday afternoon when a man drove from Baltimore to Brooklyn and proceeded to shoot to death two cops sitting in their patrol car.

We were thinking perhaps that our blog post, in which we advocate efforts to offer preventive help to, and lift up, people in low-income, high-crime areas, skipped too many steps or missed the point of the demonstrations altogether.  They were, after all, anti-police demonstrations, not necessarily outbursts from demoralized people about their own seemingly powerless states of life.

Whatever the real goal, the situation got way out of hand and led to the deaths of two ordinary cops doing a routine patrol job on a Saturday afternoon.  They were not taking any actions and, as it happens, they weren't even white.  One, named Wenjian Liu, is the son of immigrant parents from China.  The other, Rafael Ramos, is Hispanic.  Officer Ramos was hardly a violent man; he was due to graduate later that very afternoon from a program that trains lay chaplains for public service in crisis times just such as this.

Feelings are heavy today in Brooklyn.  The 84th Precinct, the officers' station, is our local precinct, the station house four blocks down the street from where we live.  We just now returned from adding some flowers to a growing collection at the front door of the building.

Brooklyn is in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.  Our Bishop, Lawrence Provenzano, happened to have been in Brooklyn yesterday, making a long-scheduled visit at a parish in a neighborhood not far away.  Afterward, he visited the scene of the shooting at Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant and talked to local police and to the people of that community.  Then when he got home last night, he wrote to the clergy of the Diocese; the letter is posted on the Diocese website.  His own pain is palpable and he urges a second look.  Listen to some of what he says.

At Myrtle and Tompkins, I stood and talked with police officers, people on the street and residents standing on stoops or in the doorways of the Tompkins Houses. The police officers talked about their fears and those of their families. They talked about being accustomed to dealing with critical situations - homicides, rapes, domestic disturbance, robberies, but not being able to rationally deal with "their own" being murdered.    At Myrtle and Tompkins people talked to me about being scared by all the killings, the rhetoric all around them, and now the possible negative reaction in the community following the murder of the two officers.

It became clear to me today that regardless of what happens next; what organizing goes on, what investigations are launched, programs developed and rhetoric shared, the church . . . must not engage in grandstanding, instigating, organizing, or even marching any longer.  People are scared, hurt, confused and bewildered.  The place of the church in all of this is not to seize the moment to be relevant or for that matter prophetic.  Our place in all of this for right now is to incarnate peace - peace in language, peace in program, peace in attitude and peace in church.

I am calling upon the clergy of the diocese to be agents of peace in the neighborhoods and communities we serve.  Our young people need some assurance and security. Our young people of color need to know that we will stand with them, that we will protect and guide them in sensible and responsible ways. They need to know that we will teach them how to stand up for their rights and stand with them when those rights are violated without resorting to violence.  Those who serve us and protect us need to know that we do not wish them harm and that we see them for who they are and aren't. The police need to know that we are allies with them in service to the community.

. . . . I am asking that we strive, and teach and practice peace and peacemaking. I am asking us to put the needs of our young people, their families and communities first. Violence cannot be a response to violence. Hatred must be remedied by love - love incarnate, made real by those who are called to be the Body of Christ.
. . . .
May Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos rest in peace.  May their families know the comfort and mercy of Jesus. And may the people of our communities find and know peace.

We are struck by the strength of our Bishop's words.  And there are more in his full text.  As we work for peace in our cities, perhaps our own suggestions for fostering more education and encouraging business opportunities in low-income neighborhoods aren't too far-fetched after all.  They're long-run, to be sure, but these situations will keep cropping up and need to be tackled at the base.  We'll be following up soon with some more specific ideas along these lines.

Meantime, may you all enjoy peace – and joy – for Christmas and for many days after. 

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