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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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Consumers' Sense of Inflation

Some weeks ago, at lunch with some friends, one of them was complaining about the absence this year of a cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits.  Indeed, that feels irritating, and, more, for people who have their Medicare Part D premiums deducted from their checks, their net benefit will actually go down a little.

The complainer at our lunch table further asserted that the government “manages” the consumer price index so it can avoid the benefit increase.  Fortunately, the meal-time conversation then shifted to more pleasant topics, but her comments registered with me as something to talk about here.  This is especially the case because it seems people also have a sense that there’s more inflation in general than the official numbers seem to show, making them believe that the purchasing power of whatever their income, whether retirement benefits or actual earnings from jobs, is being squeezed.  Maybe it is . . . .

In the 12-months through November, the consumer price index (CPI) was up a mere 0.5%.  And in the period ended in September, which determines the following January’s Social Security “cost of living” increase, the CPI was flat: it did not increase.  And as our accompanying graph shows, that had been true in most months of 2015.  Thus, according to this measure, there was no inflation.

The CPI Comes from Thousands of Items and Thousands of Stores and Service Providers
It's important to know that the government does not, in fact, “manage” these consumer price index data.  They are collected in great detail, according to huge surveys that ask about what people buy and where they buy it.  Then,  every month, employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) visit thousands of stores, service businesses, apartment management offices, doctors offices and hospitals, among other outlets, to collect price information on carefully specified items; these items currently number some 80,000 every month.

The businesses they visit are selected from among those specified in an occasional “Point of Purchase” survey also conducted by the BLS from about 14,500 families.  The items themselves come from the “Consumer Expenditure Survey”, which collects information on what people buy; if you happen to be a participant in these surveys or you know someone who is, thank them for their help.  Some of them, 7,000 of them, have kept a diary of every single purchase they have made over a two-week period, and another 7,000 have answered detailed questions in a quarterly interview.  Altogether, in a recent two-year period, 28,000 diaries were consulted, along with 60,000 interviews.

Finally, when the current prices are collected, they are examined by BLS specialists who check to make sure the specifications for an item have been followed as closely as possible so quality changes are not factored in – for instance, the “car” is the same make and model with the same features as the one last month.  All these BLS survey-takers and fact-checkers are civil servants, not political appointees.

If the CPI Is Flat, Why Might People Think There’s Inflation?
If you think, contrary to these carefully compiled government data, that there is in fact “inflation”, you are hardly alone.  A couple of private surveys agree: the Conference Board’s monthly Consumer Confidence Survey shows that its 5,000 participants estimate that the CPI is running up at about a 5% rate and has been for some time.  A smaller poll of 1,200 nationwide taken for the New York Federal Reserve Bank indicates that people think the CPI will go up 2.6% in the next year.  Both of these exceed the growth in weekly earnings also compiled by the BLS.  From December 2014 to December 2015, these wages for non-management workers were up 2.1%, less than either private survey inflation estimate.  So workers’ pay as well as Social Security benefits can seem inadequate to keep up.

We tried to figure out how this discrepancy might have developed; how might people feel there is more inflation than there really is?  We identified two factors.

One is that people’s inflationary expectations vary by age and income.  In the New York Fed’s survey, participants over age 60 see a 3% advance in the CPI over the next year, while those between 40 and 60 look for 2.4% and those under 40, 2%.  Big difference.  Income matters, too:  people with incomes over $50,000 expect about 2.4%, while those whose incomes are under $50,000 believe inflation will be 2.9%.  So if someone is better able to absorb price increases, they are less worried about higher inflation.  While there are just 2-1/2 years’ worth of responses in this survey, this relationship has pretty much held throughout.

The other factor that stood out concerns energy prices.  We all know that gasoline has been much cheaper throughout the last year than it was through 2014.  That and other energy items, such as electricity, turn out to be the main force slowing the overall CPI.  Excluding energy, the CPI was up 1.9% in November from a year ago, compared with the mere 0.5% rise in the total index.  So clearly, there were a bunch of items whose prices rose noticeably.

The most visible of these include rents and homeownership costs, up 3.6% and 3.1% in November from November 2014.  The demon health insurance rose 3.6%, medicines were up 2.7% and dentists – which  many people pay out-of-pocket – 2.8%.  Local public transit fares were up 2.5%, boys’ clothes 3.6%, infants and toddlers’ clothes 4.9%, certain fresh vegetables 4.1% and restaurant meals 2.5%.

Clearly many other items either fell or rose much more moderately, for instance, prices of women’s clothes fell 2.7% and shoes and boots fell 0.5%.  But the increases in such basic items as rent, transit fares and medicines can give the subjective impression of more general upward price pressures.  And people can easily extrapolate this impression into a forecast that more widespread inflation will return, rendering their limited earnings even less adequate.

An Inflation Outlook for the Year Ahead
We checked out some economists’ forecasts of inflation for 2016.  Their projections are not as high as the consumer surveys, but they do look for some inflation.  The National Association for Business Economics survey published in early December shows the CPI up 2.0%.  Another composite, the Survey of Professional Forecasters, compiled by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, also has 2.0%, while the Federal Reserve Board’s compilation of its officials’ forecasts shows a slightly different inflation measure at 1.6%.  These numbers are close to the recent pace that excludes the drop in energy prices.   What this suggests is that if people’s earnings are up 2.0% next year, they can “keep up” with inflation, and maybe after a few more months, they will feel better about the adequacy of their paychecks.  But Social Security beneficiaries – and government workers whose pay is also tied to the CPI – are still stuck until early 2017.  Just know that the price index data are carefully and objectively collected and combined.  The government did not push the numbers down deliberately to try to save itself money.

* * * * * *
Sources:
For information on the CPI data collection methods, see http://www.bls.gov/cpi/cpi_methods.htm

The Conference Board is a nonprofit organization that studies and advises businesses in leadership issues, the economic and regulatory environment and human capital topics.  It conducts conferences and publishes articles on these topics.  Its consumer confidence survey dates from 1967.  https://www.conference-board.org/data/consumerconfidence.cfm

The Survey of Consumer Expectations from the New York Federal Reserve Bank is new, just from June 2013.  It is conducted by The Demand Institute, an organization operated by The Conference Board and Nielsen.  One of the New York Fed’s motivations, besides compiling the basic information, is to provide additional background information for monetary policy decision-making. https://www.newyorkfed.org/microeconomics/sceIndex/index.html

The National Association for Business Economics forecast survey is here: http://www.nabe.com/NABE/Surveys/Outlook_Surveys/December_2015_Outlook_Survey_Summary.aspx.  This is a composite of forecasts from 49 of this trade association’s members.

The Survey of Professional Forecasters is https://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/real-time-center/survey-of-professional-forecasters ; this is a similar group of economists to the NABE survey.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Alcohol and Families

Following our article last month on alcoholism, our good reader Lynn pointed out that we had missed an important dimension of that issue, family relationships and alcohol.  This is, in fact, a multi-dimensional dimension and well worth our attention.

Basic, Readable Information on Alcohol
Before we move into that, we do want to give you a couple of helpful links to general information about drinking and alcohol problems.

We buried a reference in our previous piece to a treatment guide from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  It is clearly written and meant give basic information about recognizing the extent of a drinking problem and the various ways to seek help.  It's called "Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help".  Find the guide here:  http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Treatment/treatment.htm .  You can read it online or download a print "pdf" version.

Also we came across another NIAAA brochure on drinking itself, "Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health".  Very basic stuff on quantities, calorie counts, even an "alcohol budget", that is, the amount of weekly spending.  And resources if you decide you have a problem you need help with.  Find this guide here:  http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/ .

Now to our topic at hand on families.  You may have noticed in our previous article that the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder ("AUD") are not necessarily physical.  They also include mental or emotional conditions, such as depression, trouble with concentration on work, school or other activities, a need to drink more to achieve the same pleasurable feeling, forgoing other pleasurable activities in order to have time to drink more, and so on.

With issues like these resulting from excessive alcohol consumption, it would come as no surprise that family relationships and friendships face extra complications when drinking is involved.  Two kinds of reactions take place among other people in a home or with close relatives who have AUDs.  First, those people have greater probability of incurring an AUD themselves, and second, they also have emotional challenges getting along with family members and with associates outside the family.

Alcoholism Increases Children's Likelihood of Drinking
To begin, here are some numbers.  In the 2001-2002 NIAAA survey we cited last time, a surprising number, 52%, of the total adult population had some family history of alcohol use disorders.  This includes the immediate family as well as grandparents and aunts and uncles.  The chances an individual in a particular family will develop an AUD themselves depend on how extensive the alcoholism already is in the family.   When there is no family history of alcoholism, someone's chances of having had a drinking problem in the last year are just 9%.  But if any close relatives experience alcoholism, the chances go to 16%, that is, nearly twice as high.  Further, if a parent is an alcoholic, chances a child will be one are 19%.  We do caution that various surveys give various results on these numbers; we chose this one because the number of people surveyed was so very large; 43,093 people actually participated.  And the question here pertains only to the last year before the survey; the results would be higher if a total lifetime were considered.  The point is that the frequency of alcoholism is remarkably affected by alcoholic situations already in the family.

One specific chain of causation we explored is the age at which the young people in a household begin to drink.  If there's no family history of AUD, the median age at which someone begins to drink is around 19 years.  But if there's any family history, this drops by at least a year or perhaps two to 17 or a bit younger.  The public data we found aren't precise enough to be more specific.  But what is clear is that the younger someone begins to drink, the greater are the prospects that they will themselves have AUD and/or various psychological conditions.  If someone started drinking at ages 18 to 20, chances they have an AUD are just under 11%.  But if they started drinking in the 15 to 17-year age range, this doubles to 22%.  So drinking problems in a family reduce the age at which the children begin to drink and that increases the chances that they will at some point develop their own alcohol issues.

Psychological Problems from Alcoholism in Your Family
Reader Lynn comments that a family history of alcoholism is really difficult for a child, and professional research backs this up.  Besides the drinking tendency itself, Lynn points out that many children of alcoholics are subject to any number of emotional and psychological conditions.  They never learn good coping skills for facing ordinary life situations because they don't face life in an ordinary way.

As Lynn's comments and a handy summary from a professional association explain, a number of detrimental factors come into play:  daily routines are shuffled constantly, children feel guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger and depression.  They don't know how to build close relationships with other people, much less raise children of their own in a constructive way.  They might fail in school, commit various delinquent acts and take huge risks, because they simply don't know basic ways to live positively.  And, of course, as we have already alluded, the coping mechanism they do learn is drinking or drug abuse, which they tend to fall back on much more than the population as a whole.  See "Facts for Families: No. 17 Children of Alcoholics" from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; go here:  http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-Of-Alcoholics-017.aspx.

Support Groups for Families 
This is all tough stuff.  It's important for people to know they're not alone in dealing with these situations; the support of others who grapple with these issues is helpful, as well as professional care.  Alcoholics themselves can, of course, go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  For family members, whom we emphasize here, there are two groups we know of and call to your attention: Al-Anon and ACoA.  Al-Anon – and its partner, Alateen – is specifically intended for "families and friends of problem drinkers", to quote the website, http://www.al-anon.org/.  Meetings, sponsor relationships and literature all work to ease the tension family members and good friends feel when constantly surrounded by the alcohol issue.

"ACoA" stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics, found at www.adultchildren.org.   This organization is also based on the "12 Steps" and includes, literally, adult children:  people who are now adults out in the world and who grew up in families where there were alcohol problems, or similar issues that cause dysfunction.  While we had heard of ACoA, it is another resource offered to us by Reader Lynn.  She highlights again that these people have grown up without developing constructive approaches to problem solving; ACoA gives them a chance to talk to others who must now also feel their way forward against the same background.  These groups are a huge help.  Both websites help you locate meetings in your own vicinity.

+ + + + +

That big survey of alcohol use is the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions ("NESARC").  Find an introduction on the website of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:  http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh29-2/74-78.htm .  Extensive data tables are available and much scholarly work has examined many facets of the survey.  Many of the same people were re-interviewed three years later, giving some notions of changes in their habits.  And then a whole new survey was done in 2012-13, which those results just now beginning to be published.

The federal government is hardly the only party to conduct surveys about this issue.  Reader Lynn recommends a piece with the striking title, "This surprising factor can make people 4,600 percent more prone to addiction".  It's from the "Raw Story" website, found here:  http://www.rawstory.com/2015/05/this-surprising-factor-can-make-people-4600-percent-more-prone-to-addiction/, and talks – logically enough these days – about Whitney Houston and her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown.  The survey work described there, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences ("ACE"), is by Kaiser Permanente in California; they initially talked to 17,000 people just in the San Diego area alone.  ACE work is now done in many state government surveys of drug problems, as well as alcohol. 


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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alcohol Problems and Getting Help

Readers who follow developments in the Episcopal Church may know that resolutions were passed at the recent General Convention calling our attention to the role of alcohol in the church and among its clergy and people.

This is certainly enough on its own to elicit commentary from us.  But we were in fact already checking out issues on alcohol that we might explore in a Ways of the World article, and the General Convention resolutions only add to the timeliness.  Perhaps our information here can serve as one small step in discussion within the church that carries out the mandate of the resolutions calling for all of us to give attention and action to the impact of alcohol in our lives.

We had previously been working on this topic for two reasons.  First, we had lately become acquainted with the Right Rev. Chilton Knudsen, current Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Long Island.  She visited our home parish, St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, to conduct the ordination of our deacon into the priesthood.  This indeed took place on June 13 and was a very exciting celebration.  But Bishop Knudsen is about to leave Long Island and move to Maryland; beginning in the fall, she will minister there to people and clergy left quite troubled after their now-former Suffragan Bishop (a kind of associate) was involved in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.  A young bicyclist was killed.  Bishop Knudsen is a strong advocate of recovery programs and a very good, compassionate person to work with the heartbroken people of Maryland at this sensitive time.  Meeting her just when her move was being announced thus brought this tragedy closer to home for us.

Secondly, just over a month ago, results of a brand new government study of alcohol and alcohol use disorders were published on a major AMA journal website.  The work, which we learned about in a brief New York Times feature, presents a substantial body of information on the scope and treatment of alcoholism.  Its major conclusion is that, regardless of the type of treatment, only a modest fraction of people with alcohol use disorders seek out any treatment in the first place.  There remains so much stigma that people continue to hide their situation from themselves and others, so that it continues to plague them, their lives and their companions.  This study, like the General Convention resolutions, urges us to bring this problem out into the open and work on it; it can be managed with constructive effort.  We'll try to do at least a little of that here.

The government study provides important background.  It comes out of a nation-wide survey taken in 2012 and 2013 of more than 36,000 people over age 18.  It shows that during the 12 months before the survey, 13.9% of this adult population experienced some kind of drinking problem and 29.1% had experienced such a problem sometime in their lives.  Recalibrated to the total civilian population, this is equivalent to 33 million in the last year and 68.5 million during their lifetimes.  It is all clearly worth talking about.

What is a "drinking problem"?
"Drinking problem" is our phrase.  It has only partly to do with the total amount of drinking and is also concerned with symptoms that arise as a result.  In terms of drinking amounts alone, lots of people do it; in this survey, some 71% of respondents had done some drinking in the past year, including beer, wine and liquor.  Of those who drink, nearly 40% had occasions when they consumed 5 drinks in a single day, and almost 10% of those who drink had 5 drinks in a day at least once a week.

Alcohol affects people differently, of course, and even moderate drinkers can show reactive symptoms.  They may repeat prolonged drinking sets and suffer the attendant hangovers; the drinking may interfere repeatedly with other activities, including job, school or family relations; the people may believe they can take undue risks while or right after drinking, which might include driving, swimming, or unsafe sex; they may feel repeated cravings or believe they need to drink more before any desired effect is felt.  Alcohol use disorders are defined as the occurrence of two or more of these reactions, out of a total of 11.  Two to three conditions constitute a "mild" alcohol use disorder ("AUD"), four or five make a "moderate" AUD and six or more, a "severe" AUD.  The phrase  "alcohol use disorder" is in fact a medical term and comes from the latest American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5; so these people have a medical condition.

Over the 12 months before the survey, 7.3% of the population had "mild" AUD, 3.2% "moderate" and 3.4% "severe," bringing the total to 13.9%, or the 33 million people we mentioned before.  The mean age at onset for these disorders was 26.2 years, that is, pretty young.  The share of 18-29 year-olds with an AUD was 26.0%, while among 30-44-year-olds, it was 16.2%, and 10.0% of 45-64-year-olds.  Even if you notice that this share goes down with age, it's still unnerving that 10% of upper-middle-age people have had an identifiable "drinking problem" in the last year.  Over their whole adult lifetimes, 37% of 18-29-year-olds have had a problem, 34.4% of 30-44-year-olds and 28.2% of 45-64-year-olds.

What about Treatments?
If this is a medical situation, do people seek treatment for it?  Unfortunately, not a lot.  Of the people with an AUD over the past year, just – just – 7.7% of them have sought help.  Now, maybe you could say that it could take longer than a year to realize there is something amiss that needs treatment.  Sure enough, in the survey, the mean age for seeking help was 29.4 years, that is, three years after the mean age of onset of AUD.  However, the survey still shows that for people with AUD sometime during their lives, only 19.8% have sought help.

This "help" comes in lots of forms.  By far the most prevalent is AA or other 12-step-type approach, in which 15.4% of those with AUD participate.  The next most frequent are rehab programs, 9.1%, followed by physicians or other health-care professionals, 8.7%.  The doctors often prescribe a drug called naltrexone hydrochloride, as well as at least two other widely used medications.  Some doctors also use something called "12-step facilitation."  Various cognitive-behavioral therapies also help.

It's important to be clear that these treatments do help.  Apparently the current survey results do not cover effectiveness of treatment, but other previous surveys do report on it.  Thus the authors of the report we have been citing here make this statement:  ". . . participation in 12-step groups increases the likelihood of recovery, consistent with randomized clinical trials testing the efficacy of 12-step facilitation administered by health care practitioners.  Reviews . . . of randomized trials involving thousands of patients have demonstrated the efficacy of brief screening and intervention in primary care settings among individuals whose alcohol problems are not yet severe."  This discussion goes on to comment on the effectiveness of other treatment forms, including the medications we mentioned above.  In one of the previous surveys of this type, people were interviewed in two rounds, three years apart, and asked in the second round about the extent of any recovery.  Results there showed in particular that attending a 12-step program was distinctly helpful and that it enhanced the outcomes of other treatment programs.

Why People Don't Get Help
This latest survey asks people who didn't go for help, why that was.  A list of 29 reasons was provided, and people could mark all that applied.  Here are some of the most frequently chosen answers, shown as a percentage of people who had thought about going for help, but never did:
                               
            I should be strong enough to this handle alone     37.5%
            Thought it would get better by itself     33.8%
            Stopped on my own or with family help      26.4%
            Didn't think it was serious enough     23.3%
            Too embarrassed to talk about it     23.2%
            Didn't want to go          23.1%

Much less frequently chosen reasons include not knowing where to go or lacking insurance coverage.  A few respondents mention lack of child care, even as others fear that their children will be taken from them if they go for help.  Do note that about a quarter of these people who didn't get help were in fact able to solve the problem by themselves.  But this means that three-quarters of them couldn't or didn't.

So indeed, we all have a ways to go in education and reassurance.

Other Conditions Can Complicate
We've not mentioned another major issue called "comorbidity".  Alcohol problems often accompany other illnesses and the two or more conditions work together.  PTSD, identifiable personality disorders, prolonged depression, drug-abuse and nicotine disorders, among others, are found, complicating the treatment and recovery of people with AUDs.  These added conditions make it all the more important to address the subjective concerns, like those listed above, of people who have "drinking problems" but don't seek help.

Finally, we want to mention AA again.  An article in the April issue of The Atlantic asserts that AA has not been medically proven to be effective, and that writer is critical of the weight given to it as the primary approach to treating AUD.   We are hardly in a position to take an informed position on this topic.  We do know a number of people who are active in another 12-step program and that has certainly worked for them, many of them for many years.  You probably know such people as well.  It is the case that it's hard to conduct scientific, controlled studies of the effectiveness of these programs due to their voluntary and anonymous nature.  What we see in the studies we looked at here is that AA is by far the most widely used source of help and that earlier survey work showed clearly that AA enhanced the recovery prospects of other treatments.  A major point to be made is that there are a number of treatment formats and people can certainly try more than one at any given time.  That earlier survey work also noted that belonging to a religious community is constructive in facing an alcohol problem.  Participating in a community of caring people and regular attendance at services are indeed good things.

________________________

We could have broken the text with numerous footnotes throughout, but the material is already complex enough not to break the sentences with the source designation.  So here are the sources.  We call your special attention to the NIAAA treatment guide, the fifth item below:

The "current survey" is the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III, often called NESARC-III, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health.  The survey was taken from April 2012 through June 2013.

The main report of results:
Bridget F. Grant, PhD, Risé B. Goldstein, PhD, MPH, and co-authors, "Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder".  JAMA Psychiatryhttp://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2300494.  Published June 3, 2015.  This article is free to the public; no subscription is necessary to access it, though a simple account identifier must be devised and registered to download the pdf.

We accessed the "General Codebook" of the main survey for various details not cited in the article.  This information is found here:  http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/research/nesarc-iii.

The New York Times reference is "Problem Drinking Affects 33 Million Adults, Study Finds".  The New York Times, June 3, 2015.  http://nyti.ms/1JqkdG6.  Accessed July 17, 2015.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a treatment guide.  One early section of it is a quite readable list of the "Signs of an Alcohol Problem".  Find this guide at http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Treatment/treatment.htm .  A 20-page pdf "Print Version" can be accessed right by the title.  The list of symptoms is given on page 3, and the entire guide looks quite helpful.

The "prior survey" we mentioned is NESARC, taken in 2001-2002, with follow-up interviews of many of the same people in 2004-2005.  Information from it on recovery prospects is reported in Deborah A. Dawson, Risé B. Goldstein and others,  "Correlates of Recovery from Alcohol Dependence: A Prospective Study Over a 3-Year Follow-Up Interval".  Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research.  Vol. 36, No. 7, July 2012.  Pp 1268-1277.

The Atlantic magazine article:  Gabrielle Glaser, "The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous." The Atlantic.  April 2015.  http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/03/the-irrationality-of-alcoholics-anonymous/386255/ .

And the news story about the General Convention resolutions can be found here:  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/07/01/general-convention-takes-a-first-step-admits-alcohol-affects-us-all/ Bishop Knudsen is quoted in it, as is the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Bishop of Ohio.


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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.

--------------------------------
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.

--------------------
[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.

--------------------
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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