Monday, June 29, 2015

Supreme Court Decisions


I was out of town last week and deliberately out of reach of TV and newspapers but it was still impossible to notice the monumental Supreme Court decisions that were handed down at the end of the week on Federal Health care subsidies and gay marriage. Much has been written about these issues and the newspapers and commentators will have a field day in the weeks to come.

To my mind, the most telling observation came in an opinion expressed weeks before by a legal scholar on the gay marriage case. The June/July issue of First Things noticed the words of Edward Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy organization, who said that “he hasn’t given much attention to the briefs submitted, nor does he plan to follow the oral arguments, ‘because there is little basis to believe that these cases will be decided on legal reasoning’. As Justice Ginsberg said in so many words in a February interview, Americans are ready for gay marriage, so we’ll give it to them. Legal ‘reasoning’ to follow.

It now seems obvious that the justices voting in the majority in both cases went through legal hoops trying to concoct a legal reason for their decisions. All the testimony and legal arguments were just words. As some have already pointed out, the Supreme Court has increasingly acted not as a check and balance on the authority of the Executive branch, or the incompetence of the Legislative branch, but has now become a kind of nanny who corrects and smooths over their mistakes.

Nevertheless, there is one law that the Supreme Court cannot mess around with, and that is the law of unintended consequences. In the case of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare chief Justice Roberts has taken it upon himself to bail out the President’s pet program on two separate occasions. Now no one can say that it won’t get a chance to succeed on purely legal grounds. It was a hastily conceived law passed with an extraordinary degree of legislative chicanery. But this is all water over the dam. Now we will see if the ACA can actually work. Already it appears that even with subsidies from a government that is trillions of dollars in debt, costs are rising dramatically.

In the case of gay marriage I think that it can be argued that the State has always supported and encouraged citizens to marry for a variety of good reasons. One of these reasons is that Society benefits when people make a commitment to one another, a commitment that has legal status and that cannot be disregarded without serious legal and economic consequences.

In my experience as a former financial advisor I found that the best thing a couple could do financially was to marry. However, divorce was usually a financial disaster. For people to marry and stay married, despite the responsibilities involved, was often the key to success. Today, it would appear that many people are afraid of commitment and responsibility. Is this the reason why marriage has become increasingly unpopular with heterosexuals?

While an increasing number of heterosexuals seem uninterested in the benefits of marriage, homosexuals clamor for the right. Homosexuals, whatever the law says, will not be immune to the trials and tribulations of marriage. Now, when things don’t go well, they will not be able to walk away and leave their partner in the lurch. The right to marry is also in this country going to involve the legal consequences of divorce when things go bad.



Saturday, June 20, 2015

Was Jesus a Liberal?

The headlines concerning the release of the new encyclical by Pope Francis on global economics and climate change led a friend to claim that the Pope is a liberal, and that Jesus himself must be considered a liberal. Until I get a better look at the contents of the encyclical, I will withhold judgment on Francis. However, I would like to consider whether Jesus could be pigeonholed as a liberal.

This spring a bible study group in my local parish completed a little course on the parables of Jesus. Although I’ve been a Catholic all my life and am still a regular churchgoer, I had never before understood how central the parables were to the teaching of Jesus. In fact, it is clear to me now that the essence of his teaching is in the parables even though they often seem mysterious or enigmatic.

So, I would like to consider three or four of the most famous parables in order to discover any latent liberalism or conservatism in the stories. I know that the main point of the parables is spiritual but I will examine the less than “spiritual” background in the stories.

I guess that the most famous parable is the one usually called the “Prodigal Son.” Not only is this the most famous parable, but also it is possibly the most well known story in all of human literature. The prodigal son, the younger of two brothers, has the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance even before his prosperous father’s death?

The father consents and the son leaves home for a foreign land where he goes through his fortune in no time. Soon, he is homeless and hungry and reduced to laboring on a farm where he has to care for the pigs, animals regarded as disgusting by Jews of the time.

Finally, in the words of the parable, he comes “to his senses,” and realizes that he has sinned against God and man. We notice that he doesn’t blame his father for his plight. Neither does he blame society or the social and economic structure of the day. He doesn’t even blame the farmer who treats him like a dog. The prodigal son admits his fault and takes responsibility for his own misery and poverty. Truly repentant, he decides to return to his father, beg for forgiveness, and ask for a job as one of his servants. He has no sense of entitlement.

We all know the rest of the story.

Almost as well known as the “Prodigal Son” is the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Jesus tells the story of a man traveling on a road who is beset by robbers. They beat him, strip him of all his possessions, and leave him for dead in the road. A Priest and a Levite, at that time government as well as religious officials, pass the poor man by. Finally, a Samaritan merchant or businessman sees the man, takes pity on him, and cares for him. He dresses his wounds and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to provide whatever is necessary for the man until he recovers. He also promises to make up any balance after he returns from his business trip.

Leaving aside the lesson that the man’s own people neglected him while it was a member of the despised people of Samaria who cared for him, we notice that the Samaritan takes it upon himself to care for the wounded man. He did not ask anyone else to do the job. He certainly did not demand or coerce others to do the job.

Moreover, Jesus did not say that the Samaritan should give up his business or all of his possessions to assist the wounded stranger. He understood the necessity for the man to complete his business trip. After all, his profits are what enabled him to support himself, his own family, as well as help the man beaten by robbers.

In the parable of the “Talents” Jesus told the story of a rich man who left three servants or stewards in charge of his business while he was away on a trip. The first was given five talents to invest, the second three, and the last only one. It is clear that although a ‘talent” was a large sum of money in those days, in the parable “talents” refer to the gifts or talents that we have all been given.

Jesus does not suggest that we are all equal or equally gifted. The moral is that we are all expected to work with what we have been given. The first two servants double the master’s money and are praised and rewarded. The last buried his talent in the ground out of fear. He produced nothing.

At this point some might say that I am putting my own spin on the parables or leaving out something. What about the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus and asked what he had to do to attain eternal life? Jesus told him to sell all he had, give to the poor, and come and follow him along with the other disciples. Does this command make Jesus a liberal?

Aside from the fact that most liberals don’t sell all they have and give to the poor, I will just point out that the first response of Jesus to the young man’s question was, “keep the commandments.” In other words: honor your father and mother, do not kill, commit adultery, lie, cheat or steal. Are liberals the only ones who keep these commandments?

It appears to me that Jesus transcended labels like liberal or conservative and his followers should also. Here is an example that I was reminded of on hearing last Sunday’s gospel about the parable of the “Mustard Seed.” Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds but that it would grow into a great bush that would provide shelter for the birds of the air.

That parable reminds me of Ted, a man I knew in my own parish who died three years ago. He was a small, unassuming, and quiet man who rarely talked about himself but he was one of the most giving men I have ever known. At his funeral I saw an old black and white marriage photo. Ted, who served in World War II, was in uniform next to his young Italian war bride who had sewn her beautiful white wedding gown out of his parachute. I never met his wife because she died shortly before I met him, but I know that Ted loved her until the day he died. They had four or five children and all were there at the funeral with a number of grandchildren. One of the grandchildren gave a brief eulogy in which he described all the things his grandfather had taught him.
Ted was an avid gardener and wine maker but by profession he was a master electrician who worked at his trade right until his final illness struck. My wife and I originally met him in an Italian language class but he subsequently became a friend as well as our electrician. I will never forget the night our electricity went out during a violent ice storm. Ted came to the house, climbed a ladder, and repaired a broken power line in the midst of the storm. The only problem we ever had with Ted was that he was always reluctant to accept payment from friends. There was a large crowd in the Church at his funeral and I’m sure that most had also been the recipients of Ted’s generosity. Ted will never be canonized but he was one of the multitude of ordinary men who loved their families, their church, and their country.

I don’t know if Ted was a liberal or a conservative but he was a good and faithful steward who gave all he had for others.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Summer Reading List

Summer Reading List:

I recently came across a very pretentious recommended summer reading list of ponderous classics in the op-ed pages of the Wall St. Journal. It prompted me to recommend my own list of personal favorites. All are easy to read and not of great length, but sometimes great things come in small packages.

C.S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet.

Most readers are very familiar with the Narnia stories of this famous author. However, In addition to being a great scholar, Christian apologist, and author of so-called children’s stories, Lewis was also a big fan of science fiction. Out of the Silent Planet is the first in his great sci-fi trilogy. It was followed by Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. When I was in college many years ago, I picked up this slim paperback by chance. It was a great read but also my introduction to Lewis. The sci-fi technology may be dated but his knowledge of human nature was not.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Tree and Leaf.

Because of film adaptations Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are even more popular than the Narnia stories of his friend, C.S. Lewis. Like Lewis, Tolkien was a great scholar and Christian apologist. Tree and Leaf contains a brilliant essay on fairy stories as well as Tolkien’s own little creation, “Leaf by Niggle.” Of all the stories I have ever read, “Leaf by Niggle” has made the greatest impression.

Eric Hoffer: The True Believer.

Eric Hoffer made his living as a longshoreman working in California seaport towns during the nineteen forties and fifties. As a result of early childhood blindness he never attended elementary school. Miraculously, he recovered his sight in his teens but too late for any formal schooling. Nevertheless, he became a voracious reader and was a constant patron at the libraries in the towns where he worked as a longshoreman. His reading combined with his life experience on the docks made him a skeptic about ideologists who were far removed from actual experience. I first came across this little wisdom-packed paperback in college. I was a history major but few historians had the political acumen of Hoffer. I still remember this one of his many aphorisms: "when your own business is not worth minding, you’ll mind someone else’s."

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Solzhenitsyn had spent years in a Soviet concentration camp (GULAG) before this little book came to light. Its publication in the West preceded all the great works that would come later and make him the greatest writer of the twentieth century. But “One Day…” introduced me to the horrors of Communism in Russia. It also marked the beginning of the end of the rotten Soviet Empire.

Maud Hart Lovelace: Emily of Deep Valley.

On one level this is a light novel for teen-age girls. On another level it provides and insight into the life of a small mid-western town that few histories can match. On a third level it explores the psychology of an individual whose life seems to be going nowhere until she finds a way to pull herself up with her own bootstraps. One Amazon reviewer put it this way.
"This book was my introduction to Maud Hart Lovelace around 20 years ago, and although I loved reading about Betsy and Tacy, Emily is the character I always identified with most. Shy, intellectual, hindered socially by her dignity and her inability to banter, yet full of fun and lightning quick in a debate, she went straight to my heart as a character I could relate to and love."

I love this book not because I have a wife, four daughters and six granddaughters but because it is a book that every man should read if he wants to learn how to be a man.

All of these books are still available on places like amazon and ebay.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Kill the Goose


On April 17 I put up a post entitled "Minimum Wage Madness" that claimed  that an attempt to penalize large corporations in Connecticut which did not increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour might drive some large employers like General Electric out of Connecticut. Sure enough, headlines this week in the local newspaper, "The Connecticut Post," indicated that GE and others had warned legislators who were considering a huge increase in corporate taxes, as well as the minimum wage increase, that they might actually leave.

GE was joined by huge insurance companies headquartered in Hartford, the State’s Capitol once known as the Insurance Capitol of the country. The minimum wage proposal seems to have been put aside but in a last minute rush to deal with a huge budget shortfall, the Democrat majority in the legislature decided to go ahead and create a levy on corporations domiciled in Connecticut by about $62 million.

Inevitably, such soak the rich schemes are popular but there is a risk that people will find that they have killed the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. One legislator claimed that GE paid no Federal or State taxes, and argued that it was only fair to make the fat cats pay.

Putting aside for the moment whether GE as a corporation pays Federal or State taxes, can anyone be so dense as not to realize the enormous amount of tax revenues that GE and other large corporations generate. GE has almost 6000 employees in Connecticut alone. All of these employees from the CEO on down pay Federal and State income taxes. All of them pay sales tax on most of what they purchase in the state. All of them pay personal property tax on their automobiles and other possessions. All of them pay real estate taxes based on the value of their homes. These real estate taxes pay for the salaries and benefit packages of local police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

The corporate headquarters of GE is in the town of Fairfield, and GE is the largest taxpayer in the town. It would be a disaster for the town if this good neighbor were to leave the state. If GE left, a huge gap in the tax rolls would have to be filled. Homeowners, rich and poor, would see an increase in their real estate taxes. Even rentals would go up as landlords factor increased property taxes into rents.

Why in this country have we come to consider corporate profits as a bad thing? Why would most college graduates today prefer to work for a non-profit entity? What is wrong with making a profit, especially when it is these profits that pay for most of the things we value.

If GE leaves Connecticut, there will be no profits to tax. If GE left the State, the results would be disastrous not so much for GE stockholders, executives and other fat cats, but mainly for the thousands of ordinary people whose incomes are dependent on GE. In his two terms Governor Malloy has not been able to attract new business to Connecticut unless he doles out huge tax subsidies and credits. Why are he and the legislature creating a huge disincentive for companies currently domiciled here to leave?

The Governor and the Democrat leadership in the legislature that waited, as always, to the last minute to patch together this so-called budget should be prepared to take the blame if their strategies backfire. At the start of his first term the Governor pushed through a huge tax increase that was supposed to solve the State’s fiscal woes. In his recent campaign he pledged no new taxes but then left it to the legislature to create a number of new ones.

Congratulations to Fairfield representative Kristin McCarthy Vahey, a Democrat from Fairfield who voted against this budget. It will be interesting to see how the party leadership treats her in the future.

 PS. On an unrelated note, June 4 is the anniversary of the famous naval battle of Midway that was one of the turning points of WW II. I posted on it last year, the seventieth anniversary. If you missed it here is a link.