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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:

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bethlehem Santas

This picture is from the January 5 issue of The Economist magazine, just out today, which includes an article about Bethlehem, talking about the town in much the same way we do below.

These little folks are going to have a good Christmas; you can just tell! Ways of the World wishes you a good Christmas too. May you all share in all of the multitudinous blessings and wonders of this Season.

Merry Christmas!
Carol Stone

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bethlehem: Plenty of Room at the Inn

"What is Christmas?" I thought as I contemplated how Ways of the World might commemorate this season in a more formal way than the corny song parody we posted earlier, its important message notwithstanding.

Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem that night because the Roman government was taking a census in order to compile tax rolls. Now these are terms and policies an economist can identify with. The town, hardly the quiet little place in Phillips Brooks's famous carol, was abustle with travelers. Business was no doubt booming in all the shops, not just the hotels and restaurants. There were probably lots of animals in the stable, and the innkeeper probably sold feed for them too – or charged a "stabling fee".

Bethlehem is just under four miles south of Jerusalem. Even in ordinary times, it might have made a good place for travelers in and out of the city to stop for refreshment or to stock up on supplies without having to pay city – or temple – prices.

Life There Was Better Back Then
This vision of the busy little town in the year 5 or 4 BC is speculative on our part, based on just a few facts. But this week, as we revisit it in our imaginations, one aspect of life there is based much more in reality: the good townspeople of that day were almost surely much better off – economically, politically, psychologically – than the people who live in Bethlehem now.

Economics is widely known as the "dismal science" and a famous late 20th Century book about it is called The Joyless Economy. I generally take the other side of such value judgments: people, who are, after all, made in the image of God, use ingenuity to make their current lives and their current work go better. Good work is deeply gratifying, conveying inner joy and satisfaction. But these positive outcomes presume people have access to opportunity and are not oppressed in the pursuit of their daily living.

The current residents of the "Little Town of Bethlehem", where was born "[Christ] of whom the angels sing" are really hard up. If you are not aware, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank, under the general governance of the Palestinian Authority; its immediate population is about 30,000, with some 100,000 others in surrounding districts. Official data for the year 2005 put unemployment at some 20% of the "labor force", but 60% of the adult population is not in the labor force at all. Turning that statistic around, fewer than one-third of eligible adults have gainful employment. For comparison, the US figure is about 63% and, as a regional example, in Turkey, it is 45%.

The Separation Wall Makes It Harder
Further, these data don't reflect fully the impact of Israel's "Separation Wall", which was constructed during 2005. The first completed portion of the Wall runs between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, making it hard for Bethlehemites who have jobs there to get to work. The Wall also runs between the town and some surrounding farm land. This is the season of the olive harvest, the West Bank's main export. But farmers who live in town cannot count on being able to get through the Wall on any given day to work the fields, so a good portion of the olives may be lost.

This situation reflects the intensification of pressures between Israel and Palestine. The UN's Special Coordinating Office (UNSCO) in Jerusalem has estimated the number of workdays each year that are affected by "closures" of checkpoints. The information appears in a recent World Bank report. In 1994-99, the days subject to closure averaged 11 per year, and UNSCO calculates that workers could therefore get to their jobs on about 81% of available workdays. By 2003-2005, closures were averaging 97 per year, chopping to 56% the proportion of actual workdays to the potential total.

Tourism Is Way Down
Tourism, another major source of business in the West Bank, especially Bethlehem, has fallen sharply. From 100,000 monthly pilgrims prior to 2000, the number is estimated at 20,000 in recent months. This Christmas, the best four-star hotel in town seems to have several rooms open to Mary and Joseph.

Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem, asserts in a Reuters news story published December 13 that his town will indeed have a fine Christmas celebration. And why not? Look what they and we have to celebrate! Nevertheless, their situation is dire enough to give even the most optimistic of economists a bad taste of the dismal science.

Ways We Can Help
A good way we can give a boost to Bethlehem's celebration is to buy products from them, to honor their livelihood. This is not an ad, but we've bought Bethlehem olive wood items and they are very nice. There are distributors in the US. It's probably too late for Christmas, but the variety of religious articles will fit any occasion. Here's one website:

A brief search on Google also produced numerous charitable outreaches. Here are four specific ones.

· Our own Episcopal Relief and Development provides health care in the region, partnering with the Diocese of Jerusalem. The affiliated facilities are in the Gaza Strip and the Nablus area of the West Bank, north of Bethlehem. Here is a link to the program description:

· The International Orthodox Christian Charities is renovating nine schools in the region. The main funding source is a grant from USAID, the first instance of US government funding to faith-based schools in the Holy Land. Read more at

· The Hope Flowers School is a local initiative. The school uses Montessori methods and mixes big doses of peace and democracy in with the Palestinian Authority's standard required curriculum. Guests are welcome to visit the school and also to volunteer in classrooms or at other tasks. See their informative website at

· Finally, there is Bethlehem Bible College, a non-denominational Protestant school with about 135 students. It is also based locally, run by Arab Christians. Its 25,000-volume library is open to the public, and according to its website, is the only public library available to the people of the West Bank. Learn more at

Christmas Blessings, Mr. Mayor!
"We really need help from all our Christian brothers everywhere in the world," the Mayor told Reuters. "This is the city where Jesus Christ was born. Now is the time to help us."

Copyright 2006 Carol A. Stone

Monday, December 04, 2006

Variations on a Seasonal Theme

Here comes Santa Claus,
Here comes Santa Claus,
Right down Santa Claus Lane,
Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer
Are pulling on the reins.
Bells are ringing, children singing,
All is merry and bright.
Hang your stockings and say your prayers,
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Watch your credit card,
Watch your credit card,
In the midst of the shopping fray,
Macy's and Amazon and all the stores
Are pulling on your pay.
Gifts for the picking, mouses clicking,
Keep the total in sight.
Stash your wallet and count your pennies,
The bill collector's comin' tonight.

Here comes Santa Claus,
Here comes Santa Claus, . . .

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

What can I tell you people about AIDS that you don't already know? For the folks who read this website, probably not a lot.

I can share some new perspectives I've gained in the last few weeks, and perhaps they will help round out your knowledge of this plague more as well.

AIDS is no stranger to us in Brooklyn. The first person I knew to die from it was lost in the spring of 1983, very early in the pandemic. Perhaps a dozen more friends and the husband of a cousin out in the Midwest have also succumbed. Most of what I've seen or heard about results from indiscreet sex or taking drugs or a contaminated blood transfusion. These circumstances would be familiar to you as well, probably.

Our General Convention and our new Presiding Bishop have called our attention to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and fighting AIDS in poor countries is one of them. Wall Street economists don't follow poverty very much, so I haven't done much more than casual reading about it. Most of what I know I learn from Barbara Crafton's weekly sermon eMos about the work of Episcopal Relief and Development (ER-D). But she asked if Ways of the World could look into the MDGs in greater detail, and I have started to do that.

Here's a brief beginning. An extra dimension of the tragedy of AIDS in Africa is its strong tie to poverty. Children there die of many kinds of infections and malnutrition. So it takes some strength merely to survive to adulthood and then to forge a living and make a family. But just as fathers and mothers have managed these considerable accomplishments is when AIDS strikes. Married men are the largest group of victims. Heterosexual intercourse is the primary means of its spread. So here are young families with the parents just at the prime of their lives and the prime of their earning years in an already fragile environment, when this cruel illness enters the household.

One author on this topic argues against spending for medications to treat the AIDS, which will soon take its victims' lives anyway. He asserts that a better use for anti-poverty funds is the prevention of the many childhood illnesses, so that young people have a better chance at growing up. But another writer counters this. If we treat a young AIDS mother and prolong her life another year, we keep her children with their own mother one more year and we keep the family's impending poverty at bay. The first factor, keeping the family together, is more than enough, we'd opine, to justify those expenditures for AIDS drugs.

One aspect of treatment both of these writers agree about: local, on-the-ground efforts at treatment and family care are the most effective. We will have much more to say about this going forward. Meantime, in a Hodgepodge entry yesterday, November 30, Debbie links us to ER-D and a listing of their extensive local, on-the-ground programs for AIDS victims. In ER-D's "Gifts for Life" we read about various kits and medications we can provide through our contributions. These hit right where the need is. And to learn more about good AIDS treatment in poor places, as well as numerous other effective approaches to deep poverty, try Ending Global Poverty: A Guide to What Works by Stephen C. Smith from Palgrave Macmillan (2005). VivaBooks has it; just click to connect right to the book.

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