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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Perils of Fundamentalism; Spending, Debt, and the Middle Class

Merry Christmas!

I'm not a big fan of wearing my Christianity on my shoulder, but I'm glad to have a religion. Trying to be all things to all people means dumbing down the principle of faith, which is an intimate concept matching one person to one particular God. Faith is the exercise of a fixed set of beliefs. Religious conviction in its purest form shouldn't allow for hedging, or compromise.

In many parts of the world, for far too many centuries, man has slaughtered man simply because they don't share ethnicity, or religions, or nationality. Often religion justifies holy war, or the systemic liquidation of people of another race or religion.

I would hope that the exercise of Christian values can be more than a political exercise. Far too often, people with fundamentalist views use their extremism to confront non-believers, to justify their values by demonstrating them publicly--in the face of non-believers or anyone who doesn't share the depth of their convictions.

I see this approach in many American fundamentalist Christians and I think the public exercise of their faith hurts the Church. Religious opinions are different from politics, and the Bible contains references to the "demons of nations" which hardly complements the idea of nationalism, yet all too often Christian fundamentalists will let their conviction in their brand of Christianity spill over to matters of patriotism.

Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. In his seminal "The Docile American: The Nexus of God, Labor, Health Care and the Fear to Strike", Zbignew Zingh hits on the problem of faith in politics:
Faith in a higher authority also marches with faith in political authority, faith in elections and the judicial system, and an unwillingness to believe that leaders are anything less than wise and well-meaning. Faith can lead one blindly to accept the mysteries of religion and, when exalted to a level of jingoism, can cause one blindly to accept the mysteries of foreign and domestic policy. (link)

Zingh goes on to describe religion's role as "a brake on political activity and not the slightest threat to established power" that "tends to dissipate resistance to authority while celebrating the wholesomeness of non-confrontation..."

Of course faith in God and Christ translates to politics among fundamentalists who are eager to show off the depth of their convictions to public, where all manner of atheists and non-believers are able to see how strongly they believe they are right.

Wearing Your Faith on (a chip on) Your Shoulder

I'm irritated by these "In God We Trust" license plates we have in my state. I've taken to calling the cars with these plates "Blue-Platers" after the plates' color--a solid blue.

I don't bear any particular grudge against Blue-Platers, other than the fact that they feel compelled to let others know they are Christians. Instead, the idea that members of a congregation will inevitably feel the need to buy the special license plates in order to fit in bothers me. I don't see how such a superificial display of piety should be allowed to exclude others, those without the Blue Plates, who are presumably not sufficiently pious to be wearing their faith on their license plate.

Many congregants are also dependent on their fellow churchgoers for business, which also generally irks me because that means the reason for their participation is chiefly economic. The Bible does state quite convincingly that one either worships a God of money or a God of Love, and that these two Gods are mutually exclusive.

Whatever my irritations with these superficial displays of faith, I'm troubled far more specifically with fundamentalists who use their church to send messages of hate. These fanatics aim not to spread love but rather use their extremist views to repress and control.

I don't think the fundamentalist can win any hearts and minds by demonstrating or showing off just how much they hate sin, or despise one group or another that doesn't share their values. One church group from Kansas actually took to blaming Iraq war deaths on America's tolerance for homosexuality. Until several states took to passing laws banning the practice, these wierdos would actually go to the funerals and accost those paying their respects with signs and shouting, proclaiming that the soldier had died because mainstream America didn't share their obedience to scripture.

Christian fundamentalism is usually not an issue if believers keep to themselves, or don't arrange marriages like Warren Jeffs, the head of a band of Utah polygamists. Jeffs is now serving time in a state prison for his role in arranging the marriage of an underage girl to a much older man, who had apparently bestowed Jeffs and his church with money in exchange for the arranged marriage. Little information escapes these very closed communities, cloistered behind walls where most Americans can only guess what goes on. The polygamist structure of Jeffs' group meant that many young males were being tossed from their groups simply because older men took all the younger women for themselves, and didn't want any strapping young men around to tempt their would-be possessions.

I'm disturbed by the demand put on the women in these compounds, who are seen in public clustered together wearing long-sleeve blouses. Establishing dictates over clothing I see as a troubling hint of an underlying pattern of exerting control and repressing individuality, which is often considered a threat to the patriarchical authority typified by these sects. In a fundamentalist world, even the slightest display of femininity is construed as an enticement. Manifestations of sexual identity threaten the established order, which revolves around the idea of displaying devotion through repressing sexual desire. Women are presumed to be fully responsible for whatever sexual urges they might encourage from males.

So much of the fundamentalist climate is geared towards controlling women, and in particular their bodies. Abortion is viewed as the greatest sin, the taking of the life. Underlying this hatred of abortion is the concept that a women is controlling her body in defiance of God, which by their logic means impregnation by males and carrying to full term regardless of personal choice.

Ironically, these groups who have placing faith in abstinence-only sex ed have increased the incidence of pregnancy among teenage girls, who are the most likely group to have an unwanted pregnancy and thus seek an abortion. Abortion rates soar in Red states, which have more teenage pregnancies than Blue states. Odd how a presumption of girls being able to control their desires simply by abstaining leads to more unwanted pregnancies. Despite their role in a pregnancy, the male is typically not held responsible for his failure to abstain nor for the long-term consequences of bearing an unwanted child.

All over the world fundamentalists keep their women in some form of bondage. A woman in Saudi Arabia was recently pardoned after being gang-raped. Her crime: going out without a male escort. For the Saudis' extreme interpretation of Sharia law, women must avoid all kinds of behaviors. The medieval origins of this Wahhabi-type interpretation of Islam claims to represent traditions and the purest form of worship.

Sharia is praised as a fix to the woes of a secular society yet underneath the placid exterior, these societies reel with repressed human instincts. Whatever evil is done happens behind closed doors, often to women, whose word in court is worth one-half a man's.

The idea that a court could sentence a rape victim to 200 lashes and prison time violates every standard of human decency imaginable. It's only because this case came to international media attention that the Saudi monarchy intervened--God knows how much brutalization of women really goes on.

Sharia law is implemented in the mullah-controlled portions of Iraq and is on the increase in Afghanistan. If the results of our interventions are to be evaluated today, we have managed to splinter Iraq and place a good chunk of it under the rule of Islamic fundamentalist mini-tyrants. The religious leaders running the country contrast with Saddam quite radically since Iraq under Hussein made women's rights integral to his secular regime, which had been the most advanced in the Middle East.

Odd how our liberation of the Iraqis seems to be taking their society backwards. We've succeeded in Balkanizing the country in fiefdoms that can be more easily paired off against each other, an obvious advantage in devising a strategy for long-term occupation. The magnanimous results of the glorious surge include the lowering of violence, we are led to believe, but at what cost? While the death toll can be approximated and the consequences of military force reckoned with, far less quantifiable is the impact on Iraqi society.

We can't put a price on a girl's future that's been lost, or assign a value to friendships between Shia and Sunni that until recently prospered in Iraq. Strategically, we've lowered our expectations and with that are diminished rights for women and the abandonment of values which I think we stand for as Americans.

If we are to succeed in Iraq--if success can be defined or, more importantly, if withdrawal conditions (which is the real fruit of success) can ever be met, we have to do it our way. American interventions have to result in strategic victories not just in military terms but in ways that show how we've made the world a better place. It's a huge irony that the neocons who hungered for an invasion of Iraq were eager to avenge the loss in Vietnam but instead sowed the seeds of another quagmire where American goals will go unmet.

Anyway, talking about Iraq is probably not how you'd like to approach Christmas. So many Americans don't want to think about the unpleasantness over there. There enough problems in their lives, they might say, so why make more trouble?

This is an apathetic attitude great for Trotsky-ite policymakers who hunger for permanent revolution or--to be more specific--endless war. The way Iraq is going, the seemingly inevitable shift away from achieving US geopolitical goals in the region, has created a negative status quo.

While the average American may not be affected by Iraq, the consequences of the ongoing occupation will be felt for years to come, mostly in the pocketbook.

Continuing to occupy Iraq is a lot like going into debt. For many months, the debtor can steadily eat up their credit and things can seem to be going quite well. Offers of new credit cards seem to appear almost daily; you're spending and plenty of creditors seem to want to lend to you. The easy credit encourages you to spend and spend until eventually the lenders realize that to lend you more might encourage bankruptcy. They've got you at that point--you must now service the debt and pay back what you borrowed. This repayment is no easy thing, though, as the debtor is trying to repay while simultaneously trying to give up the high flying habits that incurred the debt.

The long-term result is usually extreme emotional distress. The debtor's income flows into paying off debts. Consumption--the cradle of American capitalism--is curtailed by force. While many debtors can and do get out of debt, the process is long and arduous. Clearly the benefits of over-consumption are easily forgotten; these are typically things left to rot in basement and stowed away in attics, unused. The debts incurred by buying too much are impossible to dismiss save through bankruptcy, the rules of which I previously explained to have changed under Bush.

We Americans do like our things, which is why Christmas is a perfect capitalist holiday packaged as it is for our consumption. Everyone loves gifts--they make us happy, if for a minute. The idea that buying and spending us makes us happy is so ingrained in the American mentality that we rarely notice it or its inverse, which is that often unacknowledged and internalized conviction that if we don't buy something we aren't happy. Marketers of course use this distinction to encourage us to buy things we really don't need.

A generous and fun-seeking people, we do have a habit of valuing happiness above all over emotions. Victor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, talked about trying to be content while also feeling unhappy. While we don't need to be happy about being unhappy, we can at least not be unhappy about being unhappy. This acceptance is a choice over our attitude that is under our control.

Anchoring our psyche in a cycle of gratifying consumer urges leaves us open to exploitation by marketers in our screen-driven, 24/7 media world. If we can't turn off these screens, or deprogram ourselves, we owe it to our fiscal resources, and our sanity, to at least accept the fact that making ourselves happy through consumption is not the most important thing in life. {Translation: that big screen isn't a necessity; chances are if you can afford to buy it and it will make you happy, you will buy it sooner or later.}

Spreading the Consumer Mantra

The US's greatest export is its culture and many foreigners interpret the American ideal to be one of living well, in a big house, driving a nice car, getting plastic surgery, and shopping til you drop. Of course it takes money to do these things and there's only so much to go around, so well, you know, not everyone can do what we do...

People take pleasure in the creature comforts and crass consumerism can make its way to the bosom to many regardless of their ethnicity or nationality. Perhaps this is why so many non-natives excel when they immigrate here, not because it's easy, but because the American ideal is achievable and therefore a real possibility-taking perhaps more than a generation, but possible nonetheless.

Still, by America's own standards of achievement, many cannot win at life. The rise to the top is competitive, requires ambition and a lot of hard work. Success can be lonely, too, depending on how high the bar is set. Like our consumerist mentality, the high wage-earner can be pestered by the feeling that there can always be more money and more things to acquire. No real contentment can ever come life fashioned around perpetually getting richer, where simply being rich is not enough.

I wonder sometimes if the allure of being rich is such a motivator that so many of the inevitable losers--comparatively speaking--are willing to accept their failure, be second best, even if it means accepting an income which is miniscule in proportion to the top earners in our society. Income inequity is a huge issue nowadays; it's not been since 1929 that the wealthiest 1% has made controlled so much of the nation's wealth.

Political scientists look at an income imbalance like ours as a threat of political instability. Historically, underclasses have sought to correct the imbalance in wealth through mass political actions, using the weight of numbers to their advantage. Governments fall in response.

Revolutions are often the product of a Middle Class that seeks to remedy injustice through political action. If the Middle Class is large enough, the theory goes, it can sustain the revolution and overturn the existing political order, which has an entrenched aristocracy at its top.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the elite classes are systematically dismantling the Middle Class in the US, presumably as a means of dissipating the potential political threat they represent. I just read an article by Paolo Caruso which claimed that the Middle Class was being systematically disenfranchised "with the loss of civil rights, omnipresent video survellience, electronic data intrusions, privatized penal institutions, and the build-up of war-hardened national guard assets - all taxpayer funded to guard the wealth of the elites."

Caruso explains the dichotomy, with the Middle Class perched vulnerably between:
The middle class is being hemmed in on two sides. On the top of the hill, they will face the electronic clad security walls of the wealthy gated communities; guarded by private, well equipped security firms. These little fiefdoms along the waterfronts and hilltops will be the lairs of the employers, politicians, lawyers and financiers. But at the bottom of the hill is the other menacing border that encloses their precarious level of society - the increasing boiling cauldron of the underclass.

The idea of a widening chasm between have's and have-not's is supported by the rise in income inequity. The argument that the Middle Class is being gutted finds fertile ground with CNN's Lou Dobbs, who points out that illegal immigration and outsourcing have taken a huge numbers of jobs.

Corporate America's unprecedented influence is being used to engineer massive increases in H1B visas being issued to non-US nationals, which reduces wages. Issuing H1Bs might be preferrable to losing jobs overseas, but the concept of replacing labor by bringing non-US nationals to our shores is cheap. With the number of non-citizens willing to work here infinite, we could eventually become a nation of unemployed citizens serviced by a transient workforce composed of non-citizens. Corporations would likely rotate visa holders, to prevent temporary workers from becoming citizens and demanding higher wages or--God forbid--unionizing.

The owners of the means of production benefit as corporate profits soar by displacing American workers, but does the benefit to this exclusive group justify the societal effects of lower wages? If Americans make less, it is more likely that most people in our country will suffer a lower standard of living. (See Resources at bottom of this post.)

The aggregate increases in income can be expressed in average terms, which ignore the fact the median wages are falling. Taking inflation into account, the income of the American below the median have barely increased since 1979 or so. Meanwhile incomes for the top 10% and especially the top 1-2% have gone up by double digits per annum under Bush, helped by the tax deferment, which lowered taxes on wealthiest Americans. Many of the ultra-rich have doubled their incomes since Bush took office.

The US may be an economy which revolves around the extravagant spending of the wealthy few, which can "trickle down" to lower income folks. Servicing the needs of the rich may have become central to sustain Middle Class jobs. Looking back at Bush I, in 1991 we saw taxes go up on luxury goods like yachts, which actually ended up cutting jobs in yacht-building, according to this Time article from '91. Taxes on domestic producers of luxury goods undermined the competitiveness of US goods and sent yacht-buyers and the like to overseas markets.

Taxes can stimulate or stifle an economy, but government spending can't go up indefinitely without the taxes to support it. Bush II may have taken the lower tax concept well beyond the point of stimulating employment to benefitting the wealthy at the expense of our government's fiscal stability. The deficit has doubled under Bush, in just seven years, in part due to the tax cuts, so it's fair to say taxes unpaid now will have to paid back, with interest, in the future.

Bush II isn't solely responsible for the soaring deficits--the rise of so-called entitlements is a big part--but he didn't advocate fiscal restraint either. The US fiscal deficits are growing to the point the debt is unservicable and the interest payments consume a huge portion of federal spending, even as Boomers retire and put further stress on the system. The lack of any restraint on Congress' part would seem to make fiscal solvency like that faced by the maxed-out debtor inevitable. If the government is accumulating these deficits now, wait for later.We could see the equivalent of a subprime crisis on government debt, where creditors would rush to liquidate for pennies on the dollar. The purchasing power of currency would be sacrificed; money simply issued to creditors as it spiralled ever lower in value.

Perpetually increasing the federal debt will mean creditors will one day stop lending, which will mean inflation, itself a major problem for retirees on fixed incomes and Middle Class families. The rich meanwhile, will simply move assets overseas, or to gold and capture the benefit of higher interest rates on their investments. Even if they take a hit, they will in comparative terms fare far better than lower income Americans (although Buffy having to lose the Mercedes convertible will likely be a traumatic event for these people.)

Unfolding Environmental Impact of Rampant Consumerism

Maybe we aren't so different from other cultures though, and differ from all the poorer nations of the world not as much as we'd like to admit. However, if other countries emulate us, and seek to live an American-style lifestyle down the road, the Earth will suffer mightily. I've heard that each and every American consumes an amount of goods that requires the equivalent of 3 acres of raw resources to produce. Total up the amount of paper (trees), water (in soda, too), beef (and its feed source) and other resources we use.

There are these direct depletions, but many indirect ones as well, including huge quantities of water and energy used to make electronic goods and consumer products (especially packaging and plastics in particular). As I've pointed out, here in the Midwest energy comes from coal, which may mean mountaintop removal, which is a process that provides in vivid relief (see the tag on the right of the .gif logo) the consequences of coal mining as acre after acre of pristine Appalachian woodland is torn off the face of the planet to feed mercury-polluting coal furnaces.

We need to stop the use of wasteful energy and destructive mining practices, yes, but stop the demand for energy as well to the extent that we can control how much we use and how much we don't have to use. At a certain point complaining about colonizing Iraq for its oil makes no sense if we aren't reducing our demand for oil. Every day that goes by without reducing non-renewable energy use is a loss for our country, our children, and the environment.

I'm trying energy conservation, something which appears to be an alien concept to our heavily Big Energy-lobbied government today. Unfortunately I'm in a big house with lots of leaks and generally unfavorable furnaces. I'm looking to make changes once I do what I can to cut energy consumption, hopefully incorporating solar and/or some biofuels. I need to approach the process carefully: biofuels might mean ethanol and other sources of energy that require huge quantities of conventional energy to produce. For instance, I read that batteries in a Toyota Prius may require more energy to produce than the car can save over a fuel-efficient Honda, which takes less energy to make.

Ethanol gives back something like 1.4 units of energy for every unit of energy invested in its production. To make ethanol, we need corn and corn devoted to ethanol means displacing agricultural space reserved for food production, which means food prices may be higher and scarcer. Because of the demand for ethanol, more corn is now being growed than at any time in our history. To grow corn, vast holdings of land are being converted to productive use from a dormant (read environmentally-friendly) state, which is a very energy-intensive process where trees are cut and brush is cleared and/or burnt.

That said, I think brewing biofuels from post-consumer oils and fats is a great idea. Even if commercial viability is a few years off, the act of thousands of Americans demanding biofuels will encourage their production. I'm hoping that biofuel enthusiasts in our area will produce high-quality biofuels in the future, which I can then use in a diesel generator.

I hope to put these ideas into action. I'm looking forward to seeking out practical alternatives to coal-based energy because of mountaintop removal and the rising contamination of our waterways with mercury. Global Climate Change from the CO2 is another huge reason for seeking sustainable alternatives now.

A good summary on coal is available from alternet here.


"Nuking The Economy: Immigration Numbers Outnumber US Job Growth By 7,000,000" by Paul Craig Roberts offers hard economic data on employment, etc. here.

"U.S. economy leaving record numbers in severe poverty" by McClatchy Newspapers. Poor get poorer.

Report on financial security of the Middle Class from the Center for American Progress. The number don't lie. Incomes are flat for most and financial insecurity puts at risk meager savings, imperiling millions.



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