Friday, January 23, 2015

U.S. vs. Parliamentary System? or, Why I Hate the Taste of Lame Duck

Americans increasingly love the taste of lame duck. I for one, wish I could dine at a Parliamentary Buffet.

U.S. or parliamentary system? One is nearly gridlock-proof — and it ain’t ours

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.
Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're in

In “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Washington-based scholar/pundits Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann remark several times that the way to look at the dysfunction and gridlock of recent years is that the U.S. political parties are behaving more and more like parties in a parliamentary system, but the American system does not work with that style of partisan behavior.

Because of their structures, parliamentary systems are relatively gridlock-proof. Our system — absent the grease of partisan cooperation and compromise — is particularly gridlock-prone.
A parliamentary system is designed to put one party into legislative and executive control and give that party (or a coalition of parties constituting a parliamentary majority) the tools to both enact and implement its program. The job of the out-of-power party is to criticize and oppose the in-power party, to describe its alternative ideas for how to run the country and to explain why the country should put the in-party out and the out-party in in the next election.

The point of the Ornstein-Mann observation is that in the typical parliamentary system, the opposition party can criticize and oppose all they want — in fact, that’s what they’re supposed to do. But the party or coalition in power — by rule — has the votes it needs to pass its bills and the executive authority to implement them (since the executive branch is headed by the prime minister, who is both a member of Parliament and the leader of the governing party).

But in the American-style system, with a bicameral Congress and an independently elected president who can veto bills with which he disagrees, it is very often the case, as at present, that no party has the votes to pass its bills without the compromise/cooperation of the other party.

Wait for the election

“On big issues — taxes and revenues and health care — as the president himself said, we are not going to agree,” Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second ranking Republican in the House, said early this year. “That’s for the election” to decide.
Angry Democrat
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson
That was February. The election was nine months away. The winners wouldn’t take office for 11 months. Cantor clearly suggests that if it takes 11 months of gridlock before the electorate can issue fresh instructions, well, it’s just going to take 11 months of gridlock.

Of course, if the most recent horserace polling is right, the likeliest outcome of the November election will be that we will have a Democrat in the White House, a Republican majority in the House and the Senate balanced on the partisan head of a pin. What would Cantor recommend should happen then? Postpone those issues two more years (or maybe four) until the next election?

My friend Doug Tice of the Star Tribune editorial board noted in a piece last year that the electorate used to put one party in full power quite often. Wrote Tice:
Between 1900 and the end of Lyndon Johnson's tenure, one party or the other controlled the whole federal government — the White House and both houses of Congress — for 54 of 68 years, about 80 percent of the time. Since then, we've had one-party government for just 14 of 44 years, less than one-third of the time.
Note that this is a change in the behavior of the electorate. This change has coincided with a different set of normative changes in the less-collaborative, uncompromising behaviors of the two national parties (and Mann and Ornstein decided in their book that these behaviors are much more common on the Republican side of the spectrum). If not for this change, we likely wouldn’t be trying to figure out the causes of and cures for the gridlock that afflicts Washington.

But those normative changes have occurred. Our system has no mechanism to force either the electorate or the parties to behave differently. And what if those new norms are the new normal, (and, for now, they are)? Our system — because of its basic structure and its many choke points — is going to have continuing trouble governing.

The typical parliamentary system can’t guarantee it, but under that system “letting the election decide” has a much better likelihood of working, and in a comparatively short time frame.
I don’t mean to over-romanticize the advantages of parliamentarianism. It has its faults. When I was a young man, Americans liked to laugh at the parliamentary system as it malfunctioned in Italy, seeming to bring about a new government every couple of months. Recently, Greece was spectacle of a parliamentary system run amok, when no party got a mandate but the biggest blocs of votes were obtained by a party of the far (almost communist) left and a party of the (almost fascist) right, who had no hope of forming a durable government.

The overall idea of this series is to consider the sources of gridlock and some of the other stresses and strains in U.S. politics and government, whether the sources are recent normative changes, basic structural issues or something in between.

No blamefest

Perhaps some of the rhetoric above gives the impression the series that follows will be some sort of ungrateful blamefest against the Framers and the Constitution. Maybe a little, but not really.
Angry Republican
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson
Since 1787, the USA has grown and prospered to a staggering degree, unparalleled in human history, and that ain’t nothing at which to sneeze nor for which to be ungrateful. There are dark chapters within the tale. But the point is not to disparage that history nor the creators of the system of government that helped make it possible.

My belief is that the Framers were mostly great men who did about the best that could be expected at inventing a new form of democracy while working around the various “third rail” issues of the time (like slavery) and compromising around the factional disputes that could otherwise have scuttled the whole project (like the fear of the small states that they would be pushed around by the bigs, which is why, for example, to this very day, we have a Senate in which Wyoming’s 563,000 citizens have equal say with California’s 37 million).

I should also, while I’m being humble about my main argument, acknowledge that one can easily exaggerate how dysfunctional our system has become. I try to bear in mind that things are not as dysfunctional as in the 1850s, when the country actually broke up over differences for which the political system could not come up with acceptable solutions or compromises. Sorry, but not even the fight over Obamacare, not even the constant threat of a government shutdown, not even a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating brought about by the failure of Congress to strike a budget and deficit deal, none of these compare with the Civil War as evidence of a system that is no longer working properly.
Things are not that bad. But perhaps the current gridlock in some ways is the worst dysfunction since then. The country has several pretty serious issues that need to be addressed by the government (pause here for someone to say that we don’t need the government to do more, we need it to do less, which is, of course, a great example of how we end up doing neither more nor less but continue to assert our philosophical differences until we get to at least the brink of disaster every time — and then, often, the deal that is reached only pushes the brink off a few months into the future).
I know that the Constitution has the status of sacred text. I know that it is also almost impossible to amend. So in describing the relative advantages and disadvantages between a parliamentary and a presidential system, I know that the chance is nil that the United States would consider the kind of fundamental structural changes necessary to move in the parliamentary direction.

But, just in case you never went over the comparison, the next installment of “Imperfect Union” will summarize a few key differences between the two systems.

Some appealing features of a parliamentary system

Some appealing features of a parliamentary system
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson 
Many parliamentary systems include a tradition that the Brits call the “Question Period” wherein the prime minister and his cabinet members face tough questions from members of the opposition party.
One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

Frustrated with the current state of our politics?

In yesterday’s post I suggested a parliamentary system has some advantages over an American-style setup in avoiding the kind of political gridlock we are enduring today.

So what are the basic differences between the two systems? And what parliamentary features might look appealing to gridlock-frustrated Americans? Here’s a rundown.

Snap elections/fixed election dates: In the United States, except for rare occasions like replacing a deceased officeholder or something like the recent Wisconsin recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker (which is available only in some states and requires a big petition drive), we are used to fixed election days on a Tuesday in November of even-numbered years. (By the way, weird aside: Voting on Tuesdays in November goes back only to 1845. In the early days, election days were much more scattered — even for president, many states voted on different days and the results could roll in over a long period.)

But most parliamentary systems have the ability to call a new election in the middle of a term. This could occur because the existing government has lost the “confidence” of the House (meaning it can’t get its bills passed, perhaps because the governing coalition has fallen apart) or because the government believes it is popular and, by calling a “snap election,” is able to get a fresh mandate and perhaps a bigger majority. Which system seems better?

Short campaigns/long campaigns: A U.S. presidential campaign is by far the longest such in the world. This cycle, Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential candidacy in May of 2011. Mitt Romney made his bid official on June 2, which means that by Election Day he will have been running for 17 months. Most systems, even those with presidential candidates, don’t come close and don’t have the drawn-out primary schedule. But the shortest campaigns occur in the parliamentary systems. In Canada, for example, the entire campaign is limited to two months.

Known candidates, known cabinets, known policies vs. creative ambiguity: One reason the parliamentary version of a campaign can be short is that there are generally no primaries. The major parties each have a leader who is already in the Parliament and has either been serving as prime minister or has been describing, as the opposition leader, what her party would do differently if she became prime minister. The opposition also often has a “shadow cabinet,” made up of leading voices in the out party, and the public can be reasonably confident that those shadow cabinet members would become the actual cabinet members if their party wins. In our system — and Mitt Romney seems to be raising this to a record height — a presidential candidate can get a year into his campaign and still keep his policy cards close to his vest. As far as who would be in his cabinet, the electorate doesn’t know that until the two and a half months between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

Question hour vs. press conferences:
Many parliamentary systems include a tradition that the Brits call the “Question Period” wherein the prime minister and his cabinet members face tough questions from members of the opposition party. A president never faces such questioning. The closest we have in U.S. tradition is the White House news conference, which is generally less frequent, less combative (since the reporter-questioners have to play the objectivity game while the opposition party members assuredly do not) and much more in the control of the president (who, if he doesn’t feel like being held accountable for recent developments, simply doesn’t schedule a press conference). In the British system, a question period is expected to be held almost every day that Parliament is in session.

High crimes and misdemeanors vs. loss of confidence: A president who loses the confidence of the Congress or even of the country is still expected to serve out his four-year term. There have been occasions when a president lasted a year or two or even three years in a severely weakened state. But in our system, the only way to get him out of office is with a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict him on a charge of high crimes or misdemeanors, a standard so high it’s never been met. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister who suffers a “vote of no confidence” must resign or face the electorate within a matter of weeks.

Long transition vs. next day: Speaking of those two and a half months of lame duckery, when the government is nearly frozen, in the parliamentary system there is no lag. In many cases, the new prime minister and cabinet members start governing the day after the election. When the shape and extent of the 2008 financial crisis began to come into clear view in the fall of 2008, the U.S. was led by a president who had long since lost the country's confidence. (President G.W. Bush's approval ratings were under water during almost his entire second-term and fell below 30 percent even before the economy tanked. By October, when the financial system was on the edge of meltdown, when decisions had to be made ab out bailouts, when TARP was passed, Bush was a double lame-duck, both because of the loss of confidence in him and because he would not be in office to follow through on the laws he signed.) As you may know, for most of U.S. history the lag between the election and inauguration of a new president used to last five months, with inauguration in March. In 1861, the secession of the southern states began after the election but before the inauguration of President Lincoln. In 1933, a nation that had endured more than three years of Depression waiting for a new president, ratified the 20th amendment, which shortened the transition to three months.
It’s possible — I can’t really tell — that I’ve stacked the deck in the differences I’ve chosen or the way I’ve described them that makes the parliamentary structure looks superior to ours. If so I apologize. I do confess that I’m interested in sparking fresh thinking about the strengths and weakness of our system, which is a challenge since we are indoctrinated to believe it to be the model for the world. As I mentioned in a previous installment, new democracies that have designed systems over recent years have pretty much all chosen other models than ours, which says something about how the U.S. system looks to those who haven’t been raised on it and are considering alternatives.
Of course, the fact that our system is built for gridlock might not seem like such a disadvantage to those who believe that the less the government does, the better. For a philosophical take on that issue, I turned to political scientist Jane Mansbridge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who was invited to give a prestigious poly-sci lecture (named for father of the Constitution, James Madison) and chose the topic “The Importance of Getting Things Done.” The interview with Mansbridge will be the topic of the next installment. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence

The universe, man… THE UNIVERSE.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Penal substitution, Waldenstrom, expiation and propitiation

My response to the prompt, "Penal substitution. What are the problems with it or why is it not enough as a suitable explanation for the Crucifixion?"
Quid Est Veritas FB page, January 16, 2015:

Penal substitution pits one Person of the Trinity against another, and so "breaks" the Trinity. It teaches that the Father rejects His Son. If that is the case, then what hope do we sinful creatures have? I prefer Thomas McCall's explanation of Matt. 27:46 in his book, "Forsaken." He argues that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, which should be read in its entirety. Verse 24 says,
"For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him."
This reading makes it impossible to claim that the Father "turns his face away" from Christ on the cross, contra what Stuart Townsend would have us sing in his popular song, "How Deep the Father's Love For Us."

Finally, IMO penal substitution gives a faulty picture of God's nature. Nowhere in scripture do we see God as essentially wrathful, but rather we read "God is love." In his sermon, "Be Reconciled to God," Swedish Pietist P.P. Waldenstrom (1838 –1917) outlined the reasons why the official Lutheran belief in the atonement was all wrong for those who live as citizens of the Kingdom of God:

1) "That through our fall no change has entered the heart of God.
2) That because of this it was no severity or anger against man which through the fall rose up in the way of man’s redemption
3) That the change, which occurred in the fall, was a change in man alone, in that he became sinful and thus fell away from God and from the life which is in him.
4) That for this reason an atonement indeed is needed for man’s salvation, but not an atonement which appeases God and presents him as being once again gracious but (an atonement) which removes man’s sin and makes him once again righteous, and
5) That this atonement is in Jesus Christ." (Covenant Roots: Sources &; Affirmations. p. 119-120).

In other words, the death of Christ does not change God from a wrathful God to a loving God. God has always been gracious and loving. And yes, God has hated sin but God has not hated us! It wasn’t humanity that God was wrathful about, but sin.

how does the atonement function? (or more specifically, the Crucifixion?)

The blood of Christ cleanses us from our sins. Christ's sacrifice is an expiation, not a propitiation. I think ἱλασμός is better translated as "sin offering" or "means of forgiveness," rather than "propitiation" ("sacrifice that appeases wrath").

A Comparison of Catholic and Reformed Notions of Atonement.

For future reference: here is a great comparison of Catholic and Reformed notions of Atonement.

The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ’s Passion and death, Christ bore the punishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father’s wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father’s sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ’s having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. In His human will He offered to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him, and thus made satisfaction for our sins. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ’s greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ.1 So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ’s Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”2 The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing:3
One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.

A second problem with the Reformed conception is the following dilemma. If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion. And hence that entails Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. He loved the divine Son but hated the human Jesus. Hence the Reformed conception conflicts with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Father and the Son cannot be at odds. If Christ loves men, then so does the Father. Or, if the Father has wrath for men, then so does Christ. And, if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.
St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father. Consequently there is no contrariety in the Father delivering Him up and in Christ delivering Himself up. 4
There St. Thomas explains that there is no contrariety between the Father and the Son during Christ’s Passion, no loss of love from the Father to the Son or the Son to the Father. The Father wholly and entirely loved His Son during the entire Passion. By one and the same divine will and action, the Father allowed the Son to be crucified and the Son allowed Himself to be crucified.5
One question, from the Reformed point of view, is: How then were our sins paid for, if Christ was not punished by the Father? Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him. Hence through the cross Christ merited grace for the salvation of all men. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross, but because of their own free choice.
A second question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: St. Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a true.”6 How should we understand the curse, if God the Father is not pouring out His wrath on His Son? St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death.7 Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.
A third question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: How then should we understand Isaiah 53? What does it mean that:
Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. .. And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity: if he shall lay down his life for sin, he shall see a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand. Because his soul hath laboured, he shall see and be filled: by his knowledge shall this my just servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53;4-6, 10-11)
This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us.  That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.8
If one watches the film The Passion of the Christ from the point of view of the Catholic conception of the atonement, the experience is very different from watching it from the point of view of the Reformed conception of the atonement. The film is available online, in 12 parts of ten minutes each; below is the first part. Try watching it from the Catholic point of view of the atonement.
  1. This is why Christ retained His five wounds in His resurrected body. And this is why Catholics show Christ on the cross, in the crucifix, because this is Christ’s glory. We, with St. Paul, glory in Christ crucified. (1 Cor 1:23-24) []
  2. CCC 598 []
  3. Of course in the Reformed system Christ also self-sacrificially loves the Father. But what effects propitiation in the Reformed system is the complete pouring out of God’s wrath upon the Son. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, God does not pour out His wrath for our sins onto His Son, and what effects propitiation is Christ’s positive gift of love to the Father. Hence the illustration depicts what effects propitiation in the respective theological systems. It is not intended to be an exhaustive illustration of all that is going on during Christ’s Passion. []
  4. See ST III Q.47 a.3 ad 2 []
  5. For a fuller explanation of what Christ did for us through His Passion, according to St Thomas Aquinas, see “Aquinas and Trent 6.” []
  6. Gal 3:13 []
  7. Contra Faustus, XIV. []
  8. For additional reading on the Catholic understanding of the atonement see Philippe De La Trinitaté’s What is Redemption?, and Jean Rivière’s The Doctrine of the Atonement Volume 1 and Volume 2. []

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Latent" Christians

The following is a comment from a  Facebook forum that I participate in, "Celebrating Creation by natural Selection."   I would prefer to use the term  "latent" instead of "honorary," but otherwise, I think there is great wisdom and potential in this Acts 17 approach.


Then I got an unexpected compliment from an atheist friend, "Well in fairness David, most of us atheists like you and would be happy if you considered us as honorary Christians "

I wanted to share my reply to that as an opportunity to say something about how I view the way non-Christians variously conceive of God.

Other religions do not strike me so much as wrong as they are mesmerized by a particular singular truth about God.

So to what my friend said, "most of us atheists like you and would be happy if you considered us as honorary Christians " I replied,

"I actually do that.

I believe everyone who belongs to a tradition/ viewpoint with any kind of history or staying power has a deep insight on God and has some participation in the Truth about Him.

Hindus are excellent at being in awe of God's everywhere-ness and that he fills all things, His immanence. This is something very right about God.

Deists are excellent at conceiving God as the ground of the reason and intelligibility of the world, His transcendence and otherness. This is something very right about God.

Buddhists are excellent at seeing the darkness and incomprehensibility of ultimate Reality. This is something very right about God.

Atheism is excellent at emphasizing the radical unknowability of God. This is something very right about God.

I see Christianity as being the most excellent in bringing together each of these views and balancing each one's truth with it's shadow truth (opposing views) to form a comprehensible whole (cata'holon) or catholic truth.

In short, yes, I see a lot of "honorary Christians" on these here forums>

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Things that Can't (and Shouldn't!) Be Quantified

Yet another example of how our society refuses to accept anything real which cannot be quantified, measured, predicted and controlled. Maranatha!

The Wall Street Takeover of Charity

Donor-advised funds run by huge money management firms are exploding.
Fidelity Charitable runs the second-ranked charity in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, behind United Way Worldwide. Charles Schwab's is fourth and Vanguard's is 10th.
People aren't literally giving to these companies. They are setting up accounts at these firms and then disbursing the money, advising on which charities get how much.

The idea of the funds was to make it easier for individuals to give to charity. People could drop money into the account during flush times, and donate as they see fit, not in a panicked rush to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for contributions.

So far, this has turned out to be a bad deal for society.

For about 40 years, charitable giving held steady at about 2 percent of gross domestic product, while donations from individuals have stayed at around 2 percent of disposable personal income, according to Ray D. Madoff, a Boston College law professor and frequent critic of donor-advised funds.
Over the last few years, the donor-advised funds have grabbed significant market share. The total amount of assets under management at donor-advised funds rose to $54 billion in 2013, up 20 percent from $45 billion a year earlier. Fidelity's alone have skyrocketed to $13.2 billion.
Contributions to donor-advised funds rose 24 percent in 2013, compared with the previous year, to $17 billion. They only gave out less than $10 billion, so money is building up in them. And the amount paid out each year declined in each of the last three years through 2013, according to Alan Cantor, who runs a philanthropy consultancy and is a frequent critic of donor-advised funds.
This has given rise to several concerns. The money in donor-advised accounts doesn't have to go out right away. Private foundations have to disburse an average of 5 percent each year. But donor-advised funds have no legal obligation to spend down their money — ever. True, donors cannot get their money back. But they could designate their children as the advisers to the money. And their children could pass that responsibility on to their children.

So people can get their taxable deduction all in one year, but society doesn't get the benefit of the money right away.

And there's a tax game. Investors who had a particularly good year can make a big donation to a donor-advised fund and lower their taxes. But charities might have to wait while the money sits in the account for years.

Another significant issue is that the interests of the donor-advised funds and donors may diverge. Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard all charge fees on the money put into their charitable funds. The charities are notionally independent, but they actually plow money into mutual funds run by the same companies.

There are layers of fees charged on that money. Of the $13.2 billion in Fidelity Charitable, $8.5 billion of it goes into Fidelity mutual funds. Those Fidelity funds also charge fees. And investment advisers can charge fees on some portion of the rest of the money.

Cantor estimates Fidelity makes 0.75 percent in total on its funds, but that's really just a shot in the dark because Fidelity doesn't clearly disclose the fees.

There is a more subtle effect at play as well. The firms have an interest in accumulating assets. They have no interest in having money go out the door to charities. Investment advisers, too, have an interest in directing their clients to put money into donor-advised funds rather than to charity, as well, so they can continue to charge them.

Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, proposed in his sweeping tax reform that money deposited into donor-advised accounts would have to go out the door in five years. The outcry was swift, with donor-advised funds tellingly joining the lobbying effort against it.
The president of Fidelity's charity, Amy N. Danforth, told me that donor-advised funds help people make "more planful and impactful" gifts, rather than haphazard ones.
She said in surveys, two-thirds of their clients said they gave more to charity because of their accounts than they would have otherwise. The firm said that on average, more than 20 percent is given out annually. And Fidelity says 90 percent of the donations are sent to charities within 10 years. She said the donor-advised funds were working and did not need tax reform or more regulation.
But the figures can be misleading. Some people might put a million in and donate that in the same year. Others might hold off for years. How much does the median account holder send out each year? There is a lot that Fidelity could do to improve its level of disclosure. A firm spokeswoman wrote to me that, "at this time, we do not calculate median contributions, investment return or payout at account level."

One argument in favor of these funds is that the money accumulates through investment gains. But that gets the notion of charity wrong.

"In most cases, it is more beneficial for society to invest the money now. But we are so used to piling it up and piling it up," said Cantor, because people think of it as they do retirement funds.
If a donor insists on thinking about charity in terms of investment returns, a donation today for early childhood development and education will produce substantial societal returns over time.
Thinking that way, however, signals another problem with the charitable world today, one that the rise of donor-advised funds merely exemplifies.
Even charity, like so many other corners of our economy, has come to be financialized. In some cases, it's literal. Charities are being run by for-profit financial firms. And take our most prestigious universities. It's become an oft-repeated argument that they have become hedge funds with tax-exempt colleges attached.

But it is cultural, too. The values of the financial world have infiltrated the world of philanthropy.
The charitable world has become obsessed with "metrics," as the jargon has it. Everything must be measured. One reason is that the super-wealthy increasingly come from the investment world, and not the industrial realm as in past eras, and elevate measurements over accomplishments. One leader of this movement is a hedge fund favorite, the Robin Hood Foundation, whose annual gala is regularly one of the biggest nights of giving in the charity world.

The fixation with metrics deserves a jargon term all of its own. How about Return on Societal Investment? Making things smell ROSI is pernicious and misplaced. What gets measured, gets managed, as the old expression has it. Charities will try to shape their activities to whatever the big donors choose to look at, which won't necessarily be what's most important. The more significant problem is that not everything of value can, or should, be measured. What is the good that comes from, say, a mural project for underprivileged children?

Today, we are counting the dollars that go into donor-advised funds but forgetting that some things cannot have a dollar figure put on them.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Myth of the Social Contract vs. the Gospel

This is what I've been saying for years. The Social Contract is an Enlightenment myth, not the Gospel.

Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual

We will certainly hear it said many times between now and the 2016 elections that the country’s two main political parties have “fundamental philosophical differences.” But what exactly does that mean? 

At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.

 Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.
This conclusion is unlikely to startle anyone who is at all religious or spiritual. When I was a boy I was taught that the Old Testament is about our relationship with God and the New Testament is about our responsibilities to one another. I now know this division of biblical wisdom is too simple. I have also learned that in the eyes of many conservative Americans today, religion and evolution do not mix. You either accept what the Bible tells us or what Charles Darwin wrote, but not both. The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”
While I do not entirely accept the norms clause of Lieberman’s claim, his observation strikes me as evocatively religious. Consequently I find it more than ironic that American individualism today — which many link closely with Christian fundamentalism — is self-consciously founded on 17th- and 18th-century ideas about human beings as inherently self-interested and self-centered individuals despite the fact that what essayists like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau wrote back then about the “natural state” of humankind at the beginning of history was arguably never meant to be taken as the gospel truth.
Case in point, Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously declared in “The Social Contract” (1762) that each of us is born free and yet everywhere we are in chains. He did not mean physical chains. He meant social ones. We now know he was dead wrong. Human evolution has made us obligate social creatures. Even if some of us may choose sooner or later to disappear into the woods or sit on a mountaintop in deep meditation, we humans are able to do so only if before such individualistic anti-social resolve we have first been socially nurtured and socially taught survival arts by others. The distinction Rousseau and others tried to draw between “natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual” and “civil liberty, which is limited by the general will” is fanciful, not factual.
This is decidedly not what Enlightenment philosophers wanted to hear. According to Rousseau and others, our responsibilities and duties to one another as members of society do not come from nature, but instead from our social conventions. Their speculations about the origins of the latter generally asserted that the most ancient of all societies was the family. Yet in their eyes, even the family as a social unit was seen as ephemeral. As Rousseau wrote: “children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.” When released from obedience to their father, the next generation is free to assume a life of singular freedom and independence. Should any child elect to remain united with the family of his birth, he did so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.”
In fairness to Rousseau it should be noted, as I observed earlier, that he may not have meant such claims to be taken literally. As he remarked in his discourse “On the Origin of Inequality,” “philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there.” Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.

However pragmatic their motivations and goals, what Rousseau and others crafted as arguments in favor of their ideas all had the earmarks of primitive mythology. As the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued almost a century ago: “Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief, it safeguards and enforces morality, it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.” Myths achieve this social function, he observed, by serving as guides, or charters, for moral values, social order and magical belief. “Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.”
While as an anthropologist I largely agree with Malinowski, I would add that not all myths make good charters for faith and wisdom. The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.
John Terrell
John Terrell is the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His most recent book is “A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Black Friday as an Infernal Parody of Sukkot

What makes the Black Friday Feeding Frenzy unique is the magnitude to which we are institutionalizing the celebration of greed.  See  < >   "Holiday" has its etymological roots in the concept of a holy day. By regarding Black Friday as a holiday/holy day we are venerating consumerism and capitalism. It even is becoming a parody of the Jewish festival of Sukkot: throughout the week of Sukkot, meals are eaten in temporary outdoor shelters and the males sleep in them.
"Consider the example of the Kelley family in Fort Myers, Fla., so determined to sacrifice nothing of their quality of life while in quest for the perfect deal that they showed up in front of the local Best Buy’s doors on Monday, equipped with a dinner table. This is what we call not messing around:
“[Over the years] we’ve pretty much gone from not sleeping in a tent to a tentand slowly progressed to where we’ve got everything that we remember weneed,” said Sean Kelley, who is ready to have his Thanksgiving feast in
line, [as reported by in Miami/Fort Lauderdale.]
“On Thanksgiving, mom comes out with the china and the plates, and
we’ve got everything you have on a normal Thanksgiving table.”"

During Sukkoth, Jews direct their passion toward God, remembering his "sheltering provision and care." During Black Friday, Americans direct their passion toward Stuff, anticipating and then taking hold of material goods in an effort to get what they don't have, believing that happiness comes from having.
Black Friday awakens "the lust for the kill,"  the adrenalin rush one gets when hunts one's prey, corners it, and finally overpowers it. I am sorry to say that I myself have experienced this "rush" at snagging stuff at sales. I am now coming to see that instead of overpowering the stuff, the stuff has overpowered me. As Josef Pieper writes, "we can possess only what is less than ourselves, things, objects. However, we are possessed by what is greater than ourselves.--God and his attributes, Truth, Goodness, Beauty. This alone can make us happy, can satisfy the restless heart, can fill the infinite, God-shaped hole at the center of our being. Avarice simply doesn't work." (Back to Virtue)


Capitalism’s grossest win: The final triumph of Black Friday

From Plymouth Rock to Thanksgiving at Best Buy: The Puritan ethic went spectacularly astray, all for an iPad mini

For wily veterans of a decade of Black Friday doorbuster sales, 2012 was the year that the last semblance of a boundary between the actual day of Thanksgiving and the formal commencement of the holiday shopping season finally collapsed. It wasn’t just the decision by some of the biggest retailers to move their opening hours earlier than ever before. For many customers, the exact time when the doors were unlocked was irrelevant, because Thanksgiving had already become completely subsumed in shopping mania. What difference does it make if the doors open at 8 p.m. or midnight, if you were already in line days earlier?

Consider the example of the Kelley family in Fort Myers, Fla., so determined to sacrifice nothing of their quality of life while in quest for the perfect deal that they showed up in front of the local Best Buy’s doors on Monday, equipped with a dinner table.
This is what we call not messing around:
“[Over the years] we’ve pretty much gone from not sleeping in a tent to a tent and slowly progressed to where we’ve got everything that we remember we need,” said Sean Kelley, who is ready to have his Thanksgiving feast in line, [as reported by in Miami/Fort Lauderdale.] “On Thanksgiving, mom comes out with the china and the plates, and we’ve got everything you have on a normal Thanksgiving table.”
That’s some real can-do American pioneer spirit right there, worthy of the Puritan settlers who struggled through fierce New England winters to bequeath us our most indigenous of holidays. The merger of festival and fantastic flat-screen TV deal makes sense: The United States is the greatest consumer society that has ever existed on this planet. Shopping is the lifeblood of our economy; capitalism as we know it would founder if we all stopped buying stuff. In this context, “buying nothing” on the very day that the Christmas shopping season traditionally begins would be foundationally unpatriotic. And if that means passing the gravy while standing in line in front of Wal-Mart, so be it.

But there was also something deeply disturbing at the sight of so many Americans waiting this week to get into stores that were already open. Black Friday’s metastasizing control over our popular culture is propelled by a poor economy and reminds us how millions of Americans have seen their incomes stagnate or fall over the past decade. We wouldn’t be so desperate to be first through those doors if stretching every dollar to its furthest possible extent didn’t mean so much, right? And union activists attempting to organize Wal-Mart workers wouldn’t have targeted Black Friday for a nationwide strike if the day wasn’t so resonant for the national economy, right?

Black Friday has it all: Exploited workers! No Thanksgiving holiday for you, Wal-Mart stock boy, to go along with your rock-bottom wages and nonexistent healthcare! Consumer product superabundance! Just deciding which of the proliferating tablet offerings to buy this year is a task that will intimidate even the savviest shopper. Violence and greed! Even as you are reading these words, someone, somewhere, got a little too frisky with the pepper spray while reaching for that half-off Sony Bravia.
It’s a toxic mix that tells us too much about the state of our own culture. The kickoff to the shopping season is crucial to the overall health of our economy, but at the same time the annual spectacle is sending strong signals that something is deeply wrong. Since when did celebrating Thanksgiving while in line to buy an iPad Mini represent the apotheosis of our culture?
- – - – - – - – - -
Every time Black Friday rolls around, I always wonder how the German sociologist Max Weber, author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” would have explained what’s been happening outside our biggest big box stores over the past few hours. Because buried deep down beneath the jumble of tents and maddening crowds are things he might have recognized as crucial to the evolution of capitalism, profit-inculcating values like thrift and frugality and self-denial. Perhaps Weber got a little too enthusiastic about the supposed correlation between Protestantism and capitalism-friendly habits, but he didn’t get it all wrong. Black Friday strikes chords that many Puritans would thrill to: It rewards sacrifice and discipline.

The very name Best Buy is an obvious shout-out to Calvinist frugality. What could be more true to America’s deepest cultural roots? The Wal-Marts and Targets and Macy’s can compete on price, but they don’t have a chance at that level of semiotic purity. In its bland profundity, the title “Best Buy” is more American than baseball or apple pie. It’s both a comforting promise, and a call to arms. In a country where 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by consumer activity, the notion of the “Best Buy” is the ultimate in potency. It’s the Platonic good, except that you can actually touch it.

Surely Weber would also have appreciated how the urge to profit forces a constant froth of innovative thinking, itself the wellspring of capitalist progress. Take the “doorbuster,” for example. Limiting your best deals to the first handful of people through the door has proven so effective a motivator that some of the biggest chain stores now have multiple doorbuster events throughout the entire weekend, opening and shutting their gates like automatic garage doors with terminal cases of the hiccups.
GeekSugar reports Kmart’s plans:
An Early Thursday Doorbuster begins at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and runs until 4 p.m. Stores will reopen at 8 p.m. on Thursday and close at 3 a.m. early Friday morning, marking the beginning of the Late Thursday Doorbuster deals. Stores open again two hours later, at 5 a.m. Friday morning, and run until 11 a.m. for Friday Doorbuster deals, which are effective through Saturday.
Get in line. The doors open. Grab the best deals. The doors close. Get back in line again! New deals! It’s a perpetual motion machine. It’s the very perfection of retail capitalism, simultaneously imprisoning and liberating consumers in a revolving door of alternating denial and satisfaction.

The sound of that revolving door is the sound of the throttling engine of a mighty world economy. Sure, it’s scary when those doors first crack open, and that tide of human flesh grabs at everything in sight. But it’s also kind of awesome. The sterile alienation of Cyber Monday can’t compare to the gladiatorial thrill of real human contact.

But the weirdest thing about Black Friday, the part that Weber might have had the hardest time explaining, is how fine the line is between thrift and greed. Consider the case of 19-year-old Ashley Wagner, who started camping outside a Best Buy in Saginaw Township on Monday morning. No china on the dinner table for Wagner, who took a week off from her job at Taco Bell to make sure she didn’t repeat last year’s disaster, when she was second in line.
With a generator, a can of Pringles and some Little Debbie snack cakes, Wagner said she’s ready for the week ahead. On Thanksgiving Day, Wagner’s mom will deliver a hot meal from the Turkey Roost restaurant in Kawkawlin.
“Being first in line ensures me I will get what I want,” said Wagner. Her door-busting dream: a camera for her mother, a laptop for her brother, and a flat-screen TV and some Dr. Dre headphones for herself.

I’m sure I wouldn’t mind a pair of Dr. Dre headphones under my own Christmas tree, but I don’t think taking a week off from your job to stand in line to nab a deal on some stylin’ audio equipment is an example of either thrift or frugality. Let’s not even get into the data that suggest that Black Friday’s prices aren’t invariably the lowest available, that the whole thing is just one magnificent con job. Whether or not Wagner gets what she wants, there’s no escaping the grim reality of that can of Pringles and Turkey Roost hot meal.

It’s convenient to criticize the retailers for their encroachment on turkey time and their shameless stoking of greed and bad mob behavior. But the Best Buys of the world wouldn’t be swinging their gates wide open if customers didn’t keep clamoring to get in. We’re locked in a mutual embrace and neither side is willing to let go.
Next year, look for Best Buy to begin delivering turkey dinners directly to the waiting shoppers. Indeed, I’m surprised it hasn’t already seen the market opportunity. Who needs a mom to bring over the mashed potatoes, when the market is more than ready to provide?
Andrew Leonard Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.