Monday, October 29, 2012

It’s about the Economy!

It’s obvious that this election season is about the economy.  What is not so obvious however is what about the economy.

Have you heard of David Cay Johnston?  He’s written a few well-researched books on the workings of our nation’s economic practices.  His book, Perfectly Legal, is about our tax system and how it has become a “subsidy system for the super-rich in America and how they’ve rigged the tax game on their behalf.”  He also wrote Free Lunch, which is about taxes that we consumers pay to big companies without actually going to the government but are diverted to the company coffers, allowing them to profit at the expense of taxpayer and government.  These are hidden subsidies.

And more recently he’s written, The Fine Print: how Big Companies use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind.  This book reveals how businesses are escaping the rigors of competitive markets by getting the “government to pass rules that raise prices, take away your rights as a consumer, literally put your life in danger, and allow them to, in various ways, insulate themselves from market forces, damaging the economy, making you worse off and explaining why, while wages have been flat for years, corporate profits have gone through the roof.”  [See September 19, 2012 interview with Mr. Johnston at www.democracynow.org.]

Why is this kind of information not getting through to the American people?  Why?  Why do we remain ignorant and uninformed as to what is really happening with respect to corporate tax laws written especially to benefit huge corporations, effectively giving them government subsidies at the expense of tax-payers and consumers?  Do we not care, do we not believe it?  Or, is it that we think that there’s nothing that can be done about it?  Or, is the media industry so much in the hands of these huge corporations that they cannot and will not provide us with old-fashioned honest-to-goodness, in depth journalistic investigation and coverage?

Either David C. Johnston is off his rocker, or this guy’s solid research is a wake-up call, challenging us to face the facts and demand some changes in our system.

In his interview with Democracy Now (democracynow.org) Johnston gives various examples of how we are being ripped off by corporate maneuvering.  For example, he describes how our initial taxpayer investment in the “information superhighway” has been diverted (apparently we paid over a half-trillion dollars in rate increases to cable companies and telephone companies to get this superhighway service throughout the nation and yet we are 29th in internet speed and accessibility—and we’re the nation that invented the internet!).

He speaks of how state capitols have passed laws to reduce citizens’ rights for certain services.  For example: Five states have repealed a 1913 law that had guaranteed Americans the absolute right to have a landline telephone at any address (as long as you pay your bill).  Johnston says: “But basically, lobbyists, corporate lobbyists, have been getting—quietly getting laws and rules rewritten to favor business, destroy competition and act against consumers by taking away your rights.”  Are we getting this!?

He speaks about how our big utility companies are being “hallowed out.”  Apparently we are heading for a huge infrastructure disaster: “If you live in—half the states restructured their electric industry.  Well, the utilities were allowed to pocket tens of billions of dollars of tax money that had already been paid, because nobody paid attention to the accounting on this.”  He goes on to talk about gas pipelines endangering neighborhoods because companies are not being held accountable for safety plans or safety protocols and so-on and so-forth.

His point: economic “redistribution” is a bad word.  Yet, that is exactly what is happening UPWARD to the wealthy, not downward to the poor.  Money, our hard earned money, tax dollars from consumer spending is not going back to the consumer via better government services.  Rather it is being redistributed to large corporations without the taxpayer benefitting at all.  “We have created a–it’s part of how we are creating a privatized set of rules, sponsored by government, to redistribute upward,” says Johnston.

He adds: “From 1961 through 2007, the bottom 90 percent of Americans saw their income rise [a] little tiny amount.  But if you’re in the top top group of America, the plutocrat class, for every dollar that each person in the bottom 90 percent got after taxes, you got $35.50—$36.50.  Your taxes, if you’re in the plutocrat class, fell from a mid-40 percent range down to where Romney is, 15 percent or so.  In 2009, we had six people, according to IRS data, who made over $200 million, who paid no income taxes.”

I have to say: Really!?  If all this is true it is also outrageous.  Yet, Johnston’s careful research says that it is in fact true!

So, it is about the economy.  But there are more of us (middle class, average income earners) than there of them (wealthiest people/corporations)—so why are we allowing them to get away with this?  Why do these facts not affect how we vote and who we vote for?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Children are Children…Unless They Commit a Crime!

A fourteen year old participates in a robbery, someone is shot and dies.  The State Prosecutor moves to try the teen as an adult.  He (or she) could be a fifteen, seventeen, or even a twelve or thirteen year old, same difference.  More often than not, the immediate and almost automatic response today is for prosecutors to attempt to try children and teenagers as adults when they have committed severe crimes, especially when it involves a death.

It stands to reason.  There is extreme pain, much agony and grief over the loss of a loved one, damaging consequences that last a lifetime.  This turns to anger and the desire for basic justice, if not out-and-out revenge.  And so, prosecutors and Victim Advocates want no mitigating circumstances to soften the verdict or lighten the penalty.  This is quite understandable.  But it is a contradiction to our society’s values respecting the status of children and our society’s expectation of real, authentic justice.

Over the past 25 years, children are increasingly being prosecuted as adults and thus being subjected to very harsh adult sentencing.  This ignores the medical/scientific fact that the mental/brain development of children and teens (yes, even eighteen and nineteen year olds) do not yet have the full mature capacity of adults.  That is to say that youth do not yet have the developmental capability of exercising mature adult judgment.  Yet when tried as an adult youth are being held accountable as if they were in fact complete mature adults, with an adult capacity for reasoning, emotional control, and mature responsible decision making.  This is simply not the case.

There are clear guidelines for insuring that adults are competent before they stand trial and are subjected to criminal prosecution.  This is not so with respect to youth and juvenile defendants—when their cases are moved to be tried as adults.  Because of the nature of youth, young people cannot be fairly prosecuted as adults.  This is why groups like the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) say that the practice of prosecuting anyone under the age of 14 as an adult should be totally banned across all states.

Yet, fourteen states in the U.S. presently have no minimum age for trying children as adults.  In some states, children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults.  This is here in the U.S.!  Some states have set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13.  For example, in the State of Florida a 12 year old boy is prosecuted as an adult and faces the possibility of life imprisonment without parole.  Our state of Pennsylvania is one of many that have no minimum age for being prosecuted as an adult.  This cannot be real and authentic justice. 

According to EJI, “Some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America.”  “As thousands of children have been transferred to adult courts for criminal prosecution, growing numbers of them have been automatically placed in adult jails and prisons.”

In the last three years, the Equal Justice Initiative has won three historic victories in the U.S. Supreme Court shielding children from death-in-prison sentences.  Sentences of life-imprisonment-without-parole, for children convicted of most crimes, has now been banned by the Supreme Court.  The Court also banned “mandatory life imprisonment without parole” for crimes committed by children.  Yet, many states continue to have no minimum age for the adult prosecution of children, making kids as young as 8 to 13 vulnerable to imprisonment with adult sentences that can mean decades of incarceration.

If you want to help create a more appropriate and responsible system of justice for children who are arrested and face adult prosecution, please visit the Equal Justice Initiative website at www.eji.org for more information and news on the latest developments.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Taliban are Wrong! Some beliefs are just not right!

In the Swat Valley region of Pakistan a 14-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head and neck.  The Taliban in this region vowed to finish her off, proudly and arrogantly claiming responsibility for this atrocious action.  A second innocent girl was also wounded in the shooting.

Why?

Apparently, at the ripe age of only 11, Malala began writing a blog describing life under the Taliban.  In 2009 she began speaking publicly about the need for girls’ education.  The Taliban vehemently opposes education for girls!  About her shooting, a Taliban spokesman said, “This was a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter.”  What was the so-called obscenity?  …That Malala was promoting education for girls.

Indeed, many students moved out of the valley after the local Taliban issued an edict banning girls from school.  And thus, Malala was shot while riding a bus on her way home from school, a school that was run by her father, Ziauddin.

This action by the Taliban throws into stark contrast our own casual Western idea of cultural and religious relativism where we proudly assert that all cultures and religions—including their belief systems, traditions, teachings, and practices—are to be equally regarded and respected as valid.  To embrace such a premise is to say that this latest action by the Taliban must be acceptable, valid and correct, given the Taliban’s beliefs and traditions.  After all, they are simply being consistent with their own relative cultural and religious beliefs and convictions.

Take note, it is not simply a religious question or issue.  Stalin was anti-religion, and he was guilty of murdering millions of his own people before, during, and after the Second World War on the basis of his particular beliefs, values, and convictions.  Thus, we must also accept his actions as valid and acceptable, if we are going to be true to our general Western assertion of cultural relativism—that says we must accept and respect all cultures and people-groups, including their governing authorities and organizing principles and values, as valid and equal to all and every other culture.

No!  This is unacceptable!  NOT all social, cultural, or religious authorities are good.  And neither are all traditions, practices, teachings and beliefs right.  The Taliban believe that they are in the right and feel justified in their action, shooting a 14 year old girl for defying their values, beliefs and teachings.  They are proud of this action.  They are self-righteous in their attitude regarding this action.  And they are horribly and terribly wrong!

Is this not also what our own so-called “culture wars” are all about, here in the States: The question of what is right, what is wrong, and who is to say?  We want to be cultural relativists.  But in fact, in the end, when push comes to shove, we all call upon a greater authority, some greater power or some greater truth, that becomes our organizing principle for justifying or condemning or condoning our actions.

This is why it does not work to simply say, all cultures and belief systems are equally valid—why we neither can accept cultural relativism nor casually accept religious pluralism as if all religions were in fact equal.  There are indeed significant differences between religions respecting their essential teachings, practices, and traditions.  Thus, all cultures and belief systems must be measured by their deeds and consequences and results—including ours.  No culture is perfect and no belief system is without error.  In actuality we all reject and accept various aspects of different cultures and their belief systems, based on such principles as what is true, good, just, and loving for example.

We must have discerning minds and hearts.  Within a multi-cultural, multi-religious, pluralistic and relativistic world such as ours, we just have to admit that there are some beliefs, belief-systems—ideals and values and their accompanying traditions and practices—that are just wrong.  And we must be courageous enough to say so.  And that means exposing our own beliefs and convictions which in turn may be challenged.  Much has to do with how we handle our disagreements.

Thus, real open and respectful conversation needs to take place about truth and authority, beliefs and convictions, what’s good or bad and right or wrong between and among cultures and religions.  Many strange beliefs and practices must be tolerated and accepted by a pluralistic and multifaceted culture.  However, there are some that can neither be accepted nor tolerated.  This latest action by the Taliban is one which we must not deem acceptable or tolerable, no matter how righteously justified they may feel that they are, according to their own particular set of beliefs and values.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stay of Execution for Terrance Williams? A Life View

There is no flawless justice system here on earth.  That’s a fact.  So, when it comes to justice and the death penalty, it is best to error on the side of Life. 

Human error, prejudice, pride, ego, self-interest respecting one’s career, politics, the desire for fame and/or fortune, all of the above and more, are at play within attorneys, prosecutors, and even judges, when it comes to the practice of law, the pursuing of judicial processes, and the application of legal procedures.  That is to say that justice, real bona fide, honest to goodness justice, can often be the last thing, if at all, that is on anyone’s mind within the judicial system and its procedures.

How else does one explain, for example, the fact that Terrance Williams’ initial prosecutors were guilty of withholding significant and important evidence in the original case, which resulted in Judge M. Teresa Sarmina  (Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas) granting Williams a new hearing and a “stay of execution”?  There is no doubt that Williams is guilty of murder; however, should he have received the death penalty?  In light of extenuating evidence that heretofore had been deliberately withheld from the jury by his prosecutors, perhaps not.

Let’s be clear: When crimes are committed people are terribly hurt.  Great loss is suffered, accompanied by much pain and heartache.  Personal, emotional, and mental damage is done to the victim.  Victim’s lives are forever changed in the wake of criminal action.  And, the taking of life is the ultimate crime against humanity.    Justice is wanted.

We can neither be naĂ¯ve nor insensitive.  We must not trivialize the impact of an offender’s criminal action against a victim.  We respect the victim’s needs.  And victims have many needs, the need to know ‘why me,’ for example, and the need to feel safe again, the need for healing, the need for restitution, among others; in short, the need for justice.

In the wake of a crime, society also has needs.  Like victims, the community also has the need to feel safe and be secure.  And like the victim, the community also has a need for reassurance and confidence that “it won’t happen again.”  And so, society also needs to have justice.

But, even the offender has needs.  Yes!  Even the one who is guilty of committing a horrendous criminal act has needs that must be respected.  For example, the criminal has the need to be treated humanely, not to be dehumanized.  The criminal also needs to experience authentic justice.  It ought to be restorative as well—for both victim and offender.

That is, what we all need and want is a humane and balanced system of justice that restores respect for life, sustains right over wrong, and allows for hope and renewal for all stakeholders in a crime—for victims, the community at large, and offenders.

In this nation, ‘we the people’ are the government.  And as such, we need our government to have the same value and respect for life that we have for ourselves.  And so we want holistic justice, justice that has integrity in all its procedures and processes, justice that is just in its means as well as in its ends.  We want Restorative Justice, justice that gives people the opportunity to change and to find renewal and experience positive transformation.

Instead we seem to be going in the opposite direction.  For example, we are building more prisons, not less.  Over the years, we have been incarcerating more and more people even while the actual crime rate has either gone down or remained relatively the same.  Why?  Among other things it’s because we have chosen to support a one-size-fits-all, approach to our judicial system. 

We have allowed fear and ignorance to dictate the processes and means of justice in our law courts, disempowering wise and discerning judges in favor of automatic laws that, by their very nature, being automatic as they are, have unjust and damaging consequences to both victim and offender.

Yes, we all want justice.  We want goodness.  We want what is right.  We want what is fair.  We also want what is healing and restorative.  The sad fact is that, this knee-jerk reaction, seeking the death penalty for Terrance Williams, and others like him, guarantee us none of these things.

We cannot ignore the implication of this case.  If we do not seek real and restorative justice for the likes of a Terrance Williams, it is only a matter of time before any one of us will wish that someone would have stood up for us, seeking authentic justice in our own case, when we feel we have been unfairly treated and unjustly handled by the system.

We demand better of our system.  We, the people, seek and want a better way—holistic, healing and restorative justice that respects all stakeholders in a crime—victim, community, and offender—justice that provides the opportunity for offenders to change and transform and be renewed, and justice that assures peace, healing, and hope and security for the victim as well as the community at large.

Monday, October 1, 2012

No Room for Hate in God’s Law

There is a lot of hate in the name of God today.  “All ___________ will go to hell!”  “God hates all ___________!  “May God destroy all ___________, infidels!  (Fill in the blanks with notably despised people-groups and/or minorities).  Sectarian hatred is alive and well today, as it was centuries ago.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, what is God’s greatest Commandment?  When asked, Jesus gave this answer: “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  Jesus answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,’” Jesus said.  [Matthew 22:36-40.]  In other words, love for God and love for one’s neighbor are two sides to the same coin/commandment.  They are inseparable.

And, as if to make sure we would not wheedle-out of the second great commandment in favor of the first, Jesus added this admonition to the law of love:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  [Matthew 5:43-48.]

It is clear that God leaves no room for us to hate one another—we are not even to hate those who are out to destroy us—not even our enemies!  (And how else would you define an enemy?)  Yet over and over we see and hear spouting hatred, people spitting out mouthfuls of spite, hate, and cursing.  Even religious folks, in the name of God, condemning to death and destruction, others of differing or opposing faith-communities.

Thus, the best test of true godliness, to discern whether a person or a group of people are truly of God, is to see whether or not they are loving, compassionate, patient, forgiving, merciful, and gracious to all.  According to Jesus, these are the kind of people that truly reflect the spirit and heart of God.

In that light, most of us quite often fail to reflect a heart for God in our daily attitude toward others (including yours truly).  But if we (religious folk) are to become the real and faithful lovers of God we want to be, we must demonstrate this by becoming men and women of goodwill to all others, whether they are good or bad, in or out, one of us or one of them, whether or not they are for us or against us.  There is no getting around this truth, for it is part of God’s Greatest Commandment.