Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reefer Madness: One of Nixon's Dirty Tricks

Journalist Dan Baum wrote in the April cover story of Harper’s about how he interviewed Ehrlichman in 1994 while working on a book about drug prohibition. Ehrlichman provided some shockingly honest insight into the motives behind the drug war. From Harper’s:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

SEC Investigating Hedge-Fund Priest: Christianity’s Pro-Wealth Paradigm Lapsing into Greed?

It is against U.S. securities law to knowingly make false statements or publish false information about a company you are shorting (selling stock now and buying the shares later, hence betting the stock price will go down). In other words, you can’t try to drive the company’s stock price down you are shorting so you can profit from the trade. Besides being illegal, the practice is unethical. Just go to Kant for that! The guy was fanatical against lying.

You wouldn’t expect to read, therefore, that the SEC is investigating a Greek Orthodox priest who sidelines as a hedge-fund manager for trashing commercial reputations in order to make money off shorting stock.  BloombergBusiness reported on March 18, 2016 that the SEC was “examining whether the Reverend Emmanuel Lemelson of Massachusetts made false statements about companies he was shorting.”.”[1] He reportedly referred to his trading skills as a “gift from God.”[2] Such a claim is on a slippery slope, theologically speaking.

The priest who may have lapsed off the plank of Christianity's pro-wealth paradigm onto outright greed hidden under rationalizations as to means and ends. Is Christianity itself at risk for having gone so far into this worldly realm? The again, the Medieval Roman Church was very worldly as a political power.

When the story broke, I had just days earlier finished revising my second book on Christian attitudes toward profit-seeking and wealth in relation to greed. Lemelson’s “gift from God” language reminds me of the pro-wealth writings during the Italian Renaissance two centuries before the Calvinist work-ethic of industriousness. The Italian theologians of the fifteenth century tended to lighten up on profit-seeking and wealth. Cosimo de Medici got a pass from Pope Eugene IV in spite of a fortune based on usury (lending at interest). One priest, Fancini, went so far as to claim that humans are gods on Earth, given the dominion we have over its resources. Far from the camel who could not get through the eye of the proverbial needle, a Christian during the Renaissance (and after) knew he had to be rich in order to exercise the Christian virtue of munificence. Whereas liberality pertains to typical gifts, munificence involves donating money to build a cathedral, for instance. Being able to make a lot of money was a “gift of God” that would enable the successful Christian to give philanthropically on a scale worthy of God’s majesty.
Of course, the pro-wealth paradigm in Christianity is vulnerable to lapsing into love of gain (i.e., greed). Luther’s extremely anti-wealth stance can be interpreted as an effort to put on the brakes before the by-then dominant pro-wealth attitude in Christianity hit the skids and flipped over into greed. Luther did not succeed. Nor did Calvin or the Puritans, though they were more accommodating to the dominant perspective. The result was a clear line to the Prosperity Gospel—the notion that God rewards true believers with not just salvation, but material wealth as well. This idea came from the Old Testament, wherein God promises Israel that material wealth would come if His People hold to the covenant.
In my book, God’s Gold, I search for a theological undercurrent below the graduate shift from anti-wealth to pro-wealth dominance. I discount the impact of the commercializing context. With regard to the hedge-fund priest, I would be hesitant simply to say he was a manifestation of a pro-business American culture. This may be so, more significant, I submit, are the rationalizations presumably going on in the guy’s head. Bearing false-witness (i.e., lying) to harm others is difficult to view as a gift from God. Even as a means to a salubrious end, the juxtaposition of a gift from God and lying without concern for others’ welfare is odd at best.
In the book, I come to a discussion of how the human brain functions in the domain of religion. If we are vulnerable to certain “short-circuiting” cognitively and yet we have a religious instinct, are we not as a species in a double-bind? Put another way, if Lemelson can neither cognitively nor perceptually recognize his own rationalization, is his urge to be religious compromised? I don’t think so; rather, other aspects of the brain, or mind, may obstruct or circumvent it as it manifests itself. I do think these short-comings can be made transparent, and thereby reduced at least somewhat in severity, or swollenness, but denial is indeed a formidable and intractable obstacle. I suppose the dominance in Christianity since the Renaissance of the pro-wealth paradigm (i.e., profit-seeking and wealth decoupled from the stain of greed) renders the “mind-games” that much more harmful in terms of rationalizing some rather un-Christian behavior toward others. For one thing, in order to make money in order to serve God better can enable some pretty nasty means-ends justifications.  In this way, Christianity itself is now more vulnerable than the religion was when being wealthy and Christian were presumed to be mutually exclusive (i.e., greed was assumed to be tightly stapled to virtually any wealth). Ironically, the theology may be partially to blame, in so far as anthropomorphism unwittingly lifts the religious status of money and property.[3]

[1] Matt Robinson, “Hedge Fund Priest’s Trades Probed by Wall Street Cop,” BloombergBusiness, March 18, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The secret to that sauce is in chapter 12 of the book, God’s Gold. I got so into the writing of that chapter in revising it that in retrospect the chapters on the historical shift seemed a bit like a very long preface.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Picking a U.S. President: Excessive and Insufficient Democracy

The Electoral College has never performed as intended. Instead of functioning as a buffer against "mob rule," the method of selecting the U.S. federal president has been at the mercy of the two major political parties. While they have made certain that their electors vote for the party candidate, the parties have lost control of the presidential-election process itself. The void given the demise of the Electoral College as a check-and-balance feature has enabled the process to deteriorate. Even as this is not good for democracy, the American electorate has refused to demand that the process be fixed. Both the failure of the Electoral College to function as intended and the related elongation of the presidential-campaign "season" indicate that the system, or process, has run amuck, yet even so, the voters of both parties don't seem to mind. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as per their letters in retirement, would be very concerned about such an electorate. The viability of the American republics, including the Union is at risk, these Founding Fathers would no doubt warn us.
That American voters would elect electors by state, and said electors would in turn then meet in their respective state capitols to caste votes for the candidates reflects the Convention's delegates' fear that the masses voting directly would be risky because people have difficulty resisting their immediate passions. Additionally, because the number of voters for the federal-level office was so large even when the U.S. initially had a population of 7 million, only a tiny fraction could have personal knowledge of the candidates--even just from seeing one in person.  Having a much smaller number of electors actually vote for the candidates would enhance the quality of the democracy, theoretically speaking, because those electors were few enough in number to actually meet the candidates in person. Additionally, the electors could have "inside information" not available through the media and thus to the American people generally. Put another way, the empire-scale of even the Union of thirteen republics renders direct representative democracy less than optimal. Other things equal, the larger the electoral district, the lower the direct contact between the electors and the candidates. The electors thus, as a group, have less information going into the decision.
That so many of the 310 million Americans in 2016 depended on the news media for information on the presidential candidates explains in part why the "primary season" took on the air of a circus. Debates on public policy easily succumbed to titillating personal barbs, including, unbelievably, the size of a candidate's hands and how much another candidate sweats!
The sheer length of the presidential-campaign "season" had also gone out of control. In 2015, Canada's official election season was extended to 11 weeks from its typical five or six weeks. "Many Canadians saw the extension as an excruciating marathon."[1] It is odd, therefore, that Americans put up with a campaign "season" that started during the Spring of 2015 and would not end until November of the following year! Most Canadians thought that the length of the presidential-election cycle had become truly absurd.[2]
American presidential-campaign "seasons" were not always so long. In 1960, John F. Kennedy did not announce his run until 11 months before the election. In 1972, however, Iowa moved its caucuses to the first month of the year, requiring candidates to begin campaigning well before then.[3]
Ironically, the excess democracy is compatible with insufficient democracy. Most notably, the longer the campaign "season," the shorter the period that elected representatives have to viably govern. Less time for governing makes it more difficult for the People's will to be enacted into legislation and executed in regulations.
Furthermore, even though having the various primary elections and caucuses spread out over months can entertain the masses week after week, that the "weaker" candidates can drop out of the process in the process means that voters in a state having a primary weeks or months into the season who want to vote for such a candidate are effectively disenfranchised. That Americans never stop to realize this point suggests to me that the gladiatorial excitement has taken on a life of its own. In effect, nominating party candidates becomes a reality television show even as (strangely) the American people are oblivious to the gradual slide. The reigning assumption in the status quo is that the process by which one candidate is made a federal president is not broken. For an assumption to be so utterly wrong and yet so widely (and unconsciously) ascribed to should cause us perhaps the most concern, for an electorate out of touch with itself is perhaps the most dangerous thing in a republic. Moreover, the presumption of not being able to be wrong renders such a people very vulnerable.
For a people to recognize and accept its own weaknesses and go on even to build procedural safeguards to check even democracy itself is what led to the Electoral College. It was meant to be a check on the excesses possible in an electorate--especially a big one. Doubtless, the device was an utter failure, but this does not mean that no alternatives to the status quo are possible.
In the federal convention, for instance, delegates considered having the governors elect the federal president. We could conceivably add even more possibilities, such as having the newly elected Congress meet in joint session to elect the president. Having elected representatives themselves select among candidates for a federal post is actually very consistent both historically and theoretically with ancient federalism (i.e., confederalism). In the E.U., another empire-level federal system, officials at the federal level select the presidents of the Commission and the European Council.
My basic point is that with such historical and comparative knowledge at hand, even a people wedded to the status quo can realize the brokenness of a system and go on to come up with alternatives. Sadly, viable fixes can be labeled as outlandish or impracticable to a People used to slow, incremental change. They miss the point that rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic falls short when a system has become fundamentally broken. As John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both wrote in their exchanges of letters in retirement, a viable republic requires an educated and virtuous citizenry.  

1. Daniel Victor, "The U.S. Election Is in Its Final 11 Weeks. Canadians Wonder, 'Why So Long?'," The New York Times, August 23, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.