Archives for March 2013

Sightings of Moral Life in the Deficit-Hawk Universe

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

After Paul Ryan unveiled another one of his trademark balancing-the-budget-on-the-backs-of-the-poor plans, I found myself asking again, What’s the moral grounding for this fiscal sternness?

I raised that question in an item posted late last month. At the time I noted that while faith-based objections to draconian budget cuts are familiar enough, the moral and religious case in favor of such slashing is less clear. I promised to keep an eye out for real moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books.

In my search for such reasoning, I’ve scanned blogs, checked in on publications catering to fiscal conservatives, and broached the question with friends. I’ve also happily made the acquaintance of Jeff Polet, a scholar, writer, and not-so predictable conservative.

Polet is a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a senior editor of the conservative online journal Front Porch Republic. He provided some evidence for the existence of moral and theological thinking in the deficit-hawk universe. For example, many liberals who speak on budget matters invoke values such as compassion and solidarity. Polet was just as quick to cite other legitimate virtues—temperance and prudence, among them.

“We’re spending money we don’t have,” he told me by phone in an interview I did for Our Sunday Visitor. “The bottom line is that we want a full range of services and we don’t want to pay for them.” He continued, “It’s a combination of greed, intemperance and a kind of luxuriousness. In an older time it would have been called decadence.”

When I asked him who the greedy are, he pointed to “interest groups” that oppose any cuts in programs that affect their constituencies, and fingered the AARP. I’d find it hard to pinpoint the elderly as a glaring source of national greed, not in these plutocratic times, anyway. But let’s stay on this trail.

As I noted previously, perhaps the only well-known moral claim on the fiscal right is a generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. Polet, a Catholic convert, roots the generational concern more deeply and evocatively in Scriptures. He pointed to the familiar biblical motif of inheritance (as in Genesis — “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac”).

“There’s this idea that parents owe their children an inheritance. You don’t take your inheritance and squander it, to the disadvantage of your own progeny,” said Polet, who chairs the political science department at Hope, an ecumenical Christian institution with Calvinist roots. “And that’s what I see us doing,” he added. “We’ve taken the cultural, financial inheritance we’ve been given, and we’ve squandered it in a lot of ways. So the world that we’re giving our children doesn’t seem to be as well-ordered as the world we inherited, certainly not from a financial viewpoint.”

I asked Polet if there might be another way of looking at the moral question of intergenerational solidarity. Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Or does the “well-ordered world” also need to include good schools, a solid infrastructure and a clean environment — which would require public investment now?

All that is part of a balanced way of looking at fiscal obligations, Polet acknowledged. “But if the debt problem gets too out of control, it’s going to make all those other things impossible,” he argued, falling back on a much-debated policy point (that our debt is unsustainable).

The Real Surprise

This will do, as a moral and religious case for fiscal hawkishness (and of course Polet has much more to say in his own writings). I didn’t come across much of that elsewhere—even among theocons, conservative religious types. I was unimpressed, for instance, by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” which barely even try to root policy assertions in moral or theological soil. The same goes for something called Christians for a Sustainable Economy, a largely evangelical ad hoc group that seems more ideological than biblical.

But Polet’s attention to moral and biblical foundations is not really what surprised me. I assumed that at some point I’d run into such thoughts among deficit foes. What I found intriguing were a few of his policy conclusions.

Here’s one: After arguing like many conservatives for scaling back Medicare, Polet added—“At this point, America would be better off going to a single-payer system.” The single payer, of course, would be the government, as national health insurer. He thinks this radical approach might be the only way to control healthcare costs in the future.

Needless to say, principled liberals have been making this particular case for quite some time. But I’ve never heard it from a conservative—maybe not even from a centrist. That gives me hope for a richer and less predictable dialogue on budgets and values. …read more

Father, Son, and Holy Customer

I’m not naturally a fan of looking at life through the lens of business and management. I’m inclined to do the opposite and see business in the light of other things, like faith and values. I’m not enthused by arguments that government should run like a business, that strong families are like corporate teams, or that students are the “customers” of colleges and universities. Something vital gets lost in the translations.

On the other hand, if St. Ignatius Loyola was right—that God and truth can be found “in all things“—then that has to include business. And I’ve taken a growing interest in management thinking on some valuable questions such as how we change and where ideas come from. (That’s aside from the journalistic fun of turning dissimilar phrases on each other, although one has to be careful when milking sacred cash cows.)

In that spirit, I offer here a piece that ran on Tuesday in Forbes online, “What a CEO Can Teach a Pope,” coauthored by Andy Boynton, a friend and dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and me. The item was this month’s installment of Boynton’s monthly Forbes blog, “Leading with Ideas” (on which I collaborate).

In the days leading up to the election of Pope Francis, Thomas J. Reese, a noted Jesuit priest and scholar at Georgetown University, was widely quoted as saying that the next successor to Saint Peter needs to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” That’s a colorful way of putting it, and probably not many Roman Catholics would want a Vicar of Christ to talk like a VP of Strategy. It would be more than curious to hear a papal address about the church’s “core competency” or its need to “ideate” and achieve “synergy.”

Still, Reese’s point is well taken. For one thing, many observers say Francis will have to manage the seemingly unmanageable Roman curia, the Catholic Church’s governing body that has served up such media sideshows recently as the case of “the pope’s butler,” who leaked secret Vatican documents, and a corruption scandal at the Vatican bank. But that’s only for starters.

Let’s look at this for a moment the way a CEO would.

These days the marketplace of belief and unbelief is highly competitive. Religious sects, including Pentecostals and indigenous faiths, are proliferating in places like Africa and Latin America. Other movements—notably, the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon—are also gaining traction, especially among young adults, including many nominal Catholics. There are growing numbers of “nones,” people who check off “none of the above” when polled on religious affiliation. A pope, one could say, has to come up with ways of bolstering the church’s share of this dynamic market.

Any multinational organization, let alone one with more than a billion customers, has to figure out how to adapt and innovate. But that’s not what the Catholic Church and many other big institutions are good at. The church does many things well—teaching and reaching out to the poor, to name a couple. Timely innovation is not one of them.

Borrowing a page from an illustrious manager, Catholic leaders might do well to consider that ideas for improving the church are everywhere—not just at meetings of bishops or other likely places. Such was the spirit that Jack Welch brought to American business, particularly to General Electric, in the 1980s. Until then, corporate America shared an animus against any idea or product “not invented here,” placing an exclusive priority on the creation of novel ideas within the boundaries of an organization. People were rewarded with bonuses to the extent that they conjured up such notions.

Welch arrived on the scene and set out a new vision. He originally called it “integrated diversity,” but the approach came to be known, more felicitously, as “boundarylessness.” One result was that GE went looking for ideas in the wide corporate world—”Someone, somewhere has a better idea,” he said—and happily adapted these ideas to its specific needs. As Welch once commented in a documentary, “It’s a badge of honor to have found from Motorola a quality program, from HP a product development program, from Toyota an asset management system.”

Likewise, a Catholic bishop might consider it a badge of honor to get an idea about religious education from the North American Jewish Day School Conference, or an insight into the broader culture from a novel written by an atheist. The Catholic Church has always absorbed such influences to some degree, which is how it has transplanted itself into so many cultural contexts over the past two millennia. But keen observers also note that when it comes to making important decisions, the church, like many other organizations, succumbs to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Ideas come mainly from within, from top management, and that’s not good.

2,000 Years of Steady Growth

Needless to say, corporations can also learn from the Catholic Church and religious orders such as the Jesuits—about mission, values, and global perspective. But the church does need fresh ideas, and if it’s looking high and low for them, it might as well listen to what concerned people in business management, or recently out of that world, are saying. One of them is Father Tom Doyle, who, in his preordained life, was a consultant with Deloitte & Touche.

To start with, Doyle points out that the church hasn’t exactly been a slow grower, when you take the long view. It began with 12 members—Jesus’ apostles—and now has 1.2 billion adherents around the world. “That’s almost 2,000 years of an annual growth rate of 1 percent,” he told Caitlin Kenney of NPR’s All Things Considered recently, on a light note. “That’s pretty long and pretty incredible growth.”

At the same time, Doyle and others believe the church needs to begin thinking more strategically about its brand, which has suffered in recent years, at least partly because of the sexual abuse scandals. The solution they’re recommending is greater transparency on the part of the institution that emerged last week from the secret conclave.

“This was a huge frustration for all our consultants: a lack of transparency can hurt your brand,” Kenney reported, speaking of Catholic managers and consultants interviewed for her March 6 report. “It can drive away your customers. And as the Catholic Church has recently discovered, this lack of transparency could have much darker implications.” Pointing to the scandals and an erosion of confidence in the church, Kenney added, “People stop trusting that the Catholic Church would tell them the truth.”

For his part, Doyle said he gives the same advice to the church as he would to any company in crisis. “How do you get trust back? You earn it.  You have to earn it, right? And so we’re going to have to err on the side of being more transparent about things than we have in the past.”

Most of all, the church and every big institution would do well to put on its listening ears. Listening to various stakeholders—customers, people all levels of the organization, and others—has become a critical part of strategies for designing products and processes in many (though not enough) companies. And the innovation would go a long way in the Catholic Church as well. In its March 18 issue, the Jesuit magazine America editorialized that the church needs to do a better job listening specifically to five groups: the poor, victims of sexual abuse, women, gays and lesbians, and theologians (with whom the hierarchy has an often-frosty relationship).

Listening—in a large and complex organization—is a lot harder than people think. The church may need to get some help with that, perhaps from sympathetic consultants who could facilitate the conversations with different stakeholders. But the good news is that you probably don’t have to be “Jesus Christ with an M.B.A.” to start the ball rolling. …read more

Fumbling and Fallibility at the Vatican

One of the many questions being asked about Pope Francis is whether he’ll be able to get a handle on the unruly and unpredictable Roman curia, the central administration of the Catholic Church. In the past year, that governing body has delivered such spectacles as the case of the pope’s butler, the so-called “Vatileaks” affair, and a continuing corruption scandal at the highest levels of the Vatican bank. Infighting and skullduggery have made it clear that Vatican politics, like the secular variety, can be all too human and at times brutish.

Partly with that in mind, a number of Vatican experts are saying that the new successor of St. Peter needs to have the skill set of a CEO, to manage the unmanageable. I don’t know if that’s necessary (or sufficient). Pope John Paul II was not especially noted for his managerial brilliance, but he was able to transcend the bureaucracy and project a global presence that overshadowed it. The curia was generally trying to keep up with him, not the other way around.

But now, many are asking an oddly necessary question about the most famously hierarchical organization on earth: Who’s in charge there? John Thavis, a longtime Rome correspondent, digs deeply into the paradox in his new book, The Vatican Diaries (Viking). My review of the memoir appears in the current edition of America magazine, and here it is, in full:

After turning the last pages of The Vatican Diaries, I noticed an Associated Press item that began, “The Vatican praised President Barack Obama’s proposals for curbing gun violence.” The report was based on a radio commentary by the Vatican press secretary, Frederico Lombardi, S.J., on Jan. 19. Those who read John Thavis’s vivid recollections in The Vatican Diaries will have cause to be at least initially skeptical whenever they hear that “the Vatican” said this or that definitively about anything.

Recently retired as the longtime Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service, Thavis argues that the popular image of the Vatican as a monolith, eternally on message, is a myth. On the contrary, it “remains predominantly a world of individuals, most of whom have a surprising amount of freedom to operate—and, therefore, to make mistakes,” he writes.

Re-enter Father Lombardi.

The author tells of an incident when Lombardi, during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Jerusalem in 2009, lashed out at “lies” circulating about the young Joseph Ratzinger in Nazi Germany. “The pope was never in the Hitler Youth, never, never, never!” the Vatican spokesman declared to an incredulous press. The problem was that Ratzinger’s Hitler Youth involvement was a matter of historical record. As Thavis explains, Lombardi (whom he describes otherwise as “a gentle soul with a sharp mind”) had overheard the papal secretary remark offhandedly at breakfast that Ratzinger was never an “active” Hitler Youth member. By lunch, the misconstrued comment had become the Holy See’s “latest media fiasco.”

Thavis points to the “fragmented chain of command in what is arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization,” and he relishes the irony. For him, the fumbling and fallibility humanize the institution. But not even the bureau chief was charmed by another episode he recounts that revealed both bungling and deception.

Thavis unfolds the story in a riveting chapter titled “Cat and Mouse,” about negotiations between Rome and the ultra-traditional Society of St. Pius X. Some at the Vatican sympathized with the breakaway order and saw no need to inform top officials that one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were being lifted as part of a reconciliation effort, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. But most of those who could have averted this particular fiasco—the Williamson affair became one of the biggest religion stories of 2009—were not scheming. They were just snoozing. In the end, the pope admitted publicly that anyone with an Internet connection could have known of the bishop’s bizarre anti-Semitism.

In recent years I haven’t followed Catholic News Service closely, so I’m not sure how much of the book would have been politically incorrect and therefore not publishable in that official news outlet. But I’m guessing Thavis did not often portray Benedict unflatteringly alongside his immediate predecessor, as he does in this memoir.

Here is how the author, with help from Bob Dylan, teases out one contrast at the start of his last chapter, “The Real Benedict”:

The first thing I noticed was the twitching leg. It was dark backstage, but I could make out the slight figure standing at the edge of the platform. He wore a black suit with a white stripe running down the side, and his right leg was jerking up and down involuntarily. It had to be Dylan. And he must be nervous, I thought. Singing for the pope was not an everyday thing.

The performance took place at a Eucharistic congress in Bologna in 1997. Pope John Paul II followed with some reflective riffs on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” evoking the Holy Spirit in motion. Meanwhile, back at the Roman Curia, Cardinal Ratzinger was exuding disapproval, openly disparaging Dylan and other pop icons as “false prophets.” As Thavis writes in another chapter, John Paul traveled to remote lands to be with “tribal dancers in feathered headdresses.” Benedict prefers sitting “in a concert hall filled with dignitaries like himself, listening to Mozart.” John Paul projected a spirit of openness to the wide world. Benedict? Not so much.

Thavis also looks probingly at how the AIDS pandemic has provoked genuine debate within the Vatican about the use of condoms to prevent transmission of the disease. That aside, I was surprised to find little in the book that throws light on global justice issues. During Thavis’s 29 years in Rome, Communism imploded in Eastern Europe, Jesuits and others were massacred in El Salvador, and two popes issued encyclical letters refreshing Catholic social teaching—to mention a few developments. But hardly any of that is recalled in these pages.

Then again, income stratification does not make the most scintillating subject matter for a book subtitled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. And I’m glad Thavis has offered this rare, perceptive and highly readable glimpse into a power structure that is less in control than many would have us believe. …read more

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

css.php