Sunday, October 30, 2011

7 Billion and Counting

According to the United Nations Population Fund, on October 31, tomorrow, the population of the world will become seven billion persons. That is remarkable!
When I was born in 1938, the global human population was under 2.3 billion. So in my lifetime the population of the world has tripled, and then some!
Population Action International has an app on their website that calculates the world population on any given day in the past. You can put in your birth date and quickly get the estimate of “your number,” the population of the world on your birthday. The link for “What’s Your Number?” is here. (I am 2,267,750,937.)
It is estimated that the world's population didn’t reach the one billion mark until 1804, just a little over 200 years ago. By 1927, 123 years later, the population of the world became two billion. Then in just 33 years, in 1960, the number of people on earth climbed to three billion.
Since February 1967, world population has doubled to reach the seven billion mark. (Actually, the U.S. Census Bureau says that seven billion won’t be reached until February, 2012.) What will it be like, though, if the population doubles again in the same length of time? That is unlikely to happen; estimates now indicate that even the nine billion mark will probably not be reached until 2045 or later. Still, that is a number fraught with problems.
How many people can the earth sustain? It can be argued that the earth is not adequately sustaining its seven billion people now. But the problem is largely a matter of distribution, not resources. There is enough food for everyone, but some (particularly many Americans) eat far too much, and hundreds of millions, mostly in south Asia and Africa, have far too little to eat.
With the growth of the population, there is a strain on other resources, too. And, again, the U.S. with only 5% of the world population uses an extraordinarily large share of the world’s natural resources. 
As the population continues to rise above seven billion, there will doubtlessly be more and more struggle for limited resources: fresh water, food, oil, and the like. As resources become scarcer, prices rise and more people face financial problems. More troubling, in a world of shortages violence also becomes more prevalent as nations, or smaller groups, seek to provide for their own.
Population pressures and need for additional food and natural resources have been part of the cause of wars, large and small, through the centuries, and the likelihood of warfare increases as the population continues to increase. In addition, the gap between the wealthy countries and the poor countries, or between the wealthy and the poor within countries, leads to various acts of revolutionary violence.
So the fact that the world population is now 7,000,000,000 and counting is not good news. But that is the situation we are in. And it is a matter about which we all need to be concerned, supporting ideas and programs for dealing with the problem in constructive ways.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What about the OWS Movement?

The Occupy Wall Street movement started more than five weeks ago, on September 17. Beginning in “Liberty Square” in Manhattan’s Financial District, it has now spread to over 200 cities in the United States and to over 1,500 cities worldwide where similar actions are taking place.
Not surprisingly, there have been diverse evaluations of the OWS movement. In general, many Republicans and most conservatives are critical of it; many Democrats and most liberals are supportive.
In talking with one caller early this month, for example, Rush Limbaugh called the people demonstrating with OWS “crazy,” “stupid,” “abject tools,” and “idiots.” Many people on the right would not go that far in maligning those involved in the OWS movement, but they are quite negative about the whole thing.
On the other hand, liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and Nation of Change are highly supportive of the OWS movement and are helping to supply things they need.
Herman Cain seems to be the most outspoken Republican presidential candidate on this issue. About three weeks after the movement started, Cain declared that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are un-American and against capitalism. He also said the protesters shouldn’t rally against Wall Street bankers or brokers because “they’re the ones who create the jobs.”
On Sunday afternoon June and I stopped by the lively Occupy Kansas City group. Ironically, the protesters' meeting/camping spot is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, where Cain was the chairman of the Board in the mid-1990s.
We talked with several of the people working with Occupy Kansas City. They didn’t seem to fit the description Limbaugh used for people in the OWS movement at all. At the information table we talked with a level-headed young woman who is a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. At the same table was Melissa, a bright-eyed student from nearby Penn Valley Community College.
At a table close by was Dr. Fred Whitehead (b. 1944), former professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and editor of Freethought on the Frontier (1992).
Occupy Kansas City was sponsoring the “Day of Learning” on Sunday. When we were there, two groups, most seated on the ground, were listening to talks about common concerns. The “lectures” were low-key, sounding like what you would hear in a college classroom. They were anything but rabble-rousing.
As seems to be true for the OWS movement nationwide, there is not yet a clear focus concerning the goals of Occupy Kansas City. Some of the people we talked with, such as the semi-homeless woman with three children, were there out of frustration. She has tried hard for years, but is having a hard time finding work that pays a living wage.
At the very least, it seems that the majority of the people participating in the OWS movement want “economic justice,” which includes some adjustment in the current economic structure of the country that allows the top 1% of the population to possess 43% of the financial wealth of the nation and the bottom 80% to have only 7%.
Because of that disparity, and the continuing high rate of unemployment and personal debt, the OWS movement is probably going to be around for quite some time. And the people involved in the movement need support and understanding far more than criticism.
And, then, there is this poster to consider:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Praise of Daniel Berrigan


Daniel Berrigan, the anti-war Jesuit priest who turned 90 in May of this year, has been a fervent advocate of peace for decades. As I have been thinking about him recently, I am writing this as another posting of my “in praise of” series. (Click on “praise” in the label column on the right to see others postings in this series.)
Especially you who are 60 or older doubtlessly know something about Berrigan, who first became widely known in the late 1960s. He and his brother Philip (1923-2002) became highly visible anti-war/peace activists during the Vietnam War. After that war ended, they continued to oppose nuclear weapons.
Some of you may harbor a fairly negative image of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. For several years up to the end of the war in Vietnam they were greatly criticized by the media as well as by many within the Catholic Church. (Like his older brother, Philip was also a priest.)
The Berrigan brothers, with a few others, engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience to protest what they believed to be an unjust war. They were two of the “Cantonville Nine,” nine people who in May 1968 went to the draft board in a Baltimore suburb, took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire.
They were arrested, of course, and after a few months as a fugitive, Daniel was in prison from August 1970 to February1972. Earlier, in 1967, he had been the first priest in U.S. history to be arrested for a protest against war. He was in jail only five days that time.
Then in September 1980 the Berrigan brothers and a few others began the Plowshares Movement. They illegally trespassed onto a nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania, where they damaged nuclear warhead nosecones and poured their own blood onto documents and files.
Earlier this month I finished reading Daniel’s autobiography, To Dwell in Peace (1987), and I was much impressed by his life story and especially by his dedication to peace and justice. (I was also impressed by the splendid prose in which the book is written.)
In the book,  says that when the church yields “before the politics of the virtuous versus the ‘kingdom of evil,’ we become, willy-nilly, the spiritual arm of ever-renewed violence” (p. 156). Unfortunately, that seems to have been the case often, and is seen in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I am now reading Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings (2009), selected with an introduction by John Dear, who was mentored by Berrigan. Dear (b. 1959) is also a Jesuit priest and an avid anti-war/peace activist; he has been arrested more than 75 times.
Dear writes that Berrigan “remains a beacon of hope to peace-loving people everywhere” (p. 24). For that reason I am happy to post these few words in praise of Daniel Berrigan, who for far more than half his ninety years has been an extraordinary prophet and peacemaker.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Is Mormonism a Cult?

“Mormonism is a cult.” So declared Dr. Robert Jeffress, the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, when interviewed after introducing Gov. Rick Perry to the Value Voters Summit (VVS) held last weekend in Washington, D.C.
The VVS was sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, Liberty University, and other groups noted for their conservative religious and political stance. The flier advertising the event quotes Sean Hannity saying that the VVS is “the premier conservative event now in the country.”
All of the major Republican presidential candidates were there, as well as some sitting U.S. Senators and Representatives (all Republicans). But it was Rev. Jeffress’ statement about Mormonism which got the most press coverage as he puffed Mr. Perry and cast aspersions on Mr. Romney.
The next day a Thinking Friend sent me a link to “Mormonism Takes Center Stage,” an article by Rachel Weiner in the October 7 Washington Post. And he posed this question, “Is Mormonism a cult?”
Of course the answer depends largely on how the word cult is defined. The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines cult as “a system of religious beliefs and ritual.” In that sense, of course Mormonism is a cult, as is every other denomination or religion.
But the same dictionary also gives this definition: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” This is most likely the view of Mormonism that Rev. Jeffress had in mind.
It is clear that Mormonism is not one of the historic, “mainstream” Christian denominations. It was organized in 1830, based upon special revelation received by Joseph Smith, who translated The Book of Mormon and began the first meetings that grew into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the official name of what we usually call the Mormon Church.
It is looking more and more as if Mr. Romney will be the Republican candidate for President next year. But does it make any difference if he is a Mormon, even if Mormonism could be accurately described as a cult in a negative sense? I think not.
There are no legal religious requirements for public office in the United States, and for good reason. Religious freedom is a longstanding, and important, principle of national life.
Al Smith was defeated in the 1928 presidential election partly because he was a Catholic. But as most people came to see after the election of JFK, it didn’t make any real difference in public policy for the President to be a Catholic.
And the same sort of thing would most likely be true if Mr. Romney should be elected President next year.
If Mr. Romney does become the Republican candidate for President, though, I won’t vote for him. (In fact, I am not likely to vote for any Republican candidate any time soon.) But it won’t be because he is a member of a “cult.”
I won’t vote for Mr. Romney because of his political ideas and the platform of the party on which he stands. And I hope that all voters will cast their ballots on the basis of political conviction and not because of religious, or any other type of, prejudice.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The China Conundrum

Today is “Double Ten,” a very special day for some of the Chinese who live on the island of Taiwan, and to a lesser degree for all Chinese.
The Chinese Revolution began on October 10, 1911. It resulted in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the last imperial dynasty, and the establishing of the Republic of China (ROC), which was formed on January 1, 1912.

So today is the centennial celebration of Double Ten Day, the national day for the ROC.
 A symbol often seen during Double Ten Day (it is the combination of two characters for "10" (十)
Long called Formosa (“beautiful island”) Taiwan is the name of an island off the east coast of China, home to about 23,000,000 people. While most of the people of Taiwan are Chinese (only about 2% are aboriginal people, like the Native Americans in this country), only about 15% of them are from the mainland. And they are the ones who lead the celebration of Double Ten.
Several memories linger from the first time I visited Taiwan many years ago—such as being surprised at seeing beautiful poinsettia trees, many over ten feet tall. I hadn’t known poinsettias grew so tall.
I also remember the feeling of incongruity when I was visiting an old shrine erected in veneration of Confucius—and at the same time seeing Taiwanese Air Force jets screaming overhead.
One other memory: seeing many portraits of Sun Yat Sen, the first President of the Republic of China. Actually, he was only Provisional President and served less than three months, but still he was, and is, widely celebrated at the founder of the Republic of China (ROC).
In 1949, however, the Communists under Mao Zedong (Tse-tung) overthrew the ROC and established the People’s Republic of China, which is still the name of the nation on mainland China.
On March 1, 1950, ROC President Chiang Kai-shek moved the government of China to Taiwan, and formally resumed duties as President. And, sixty-one years later, the U.S. is still supporting Taiwan. Should that support continue? Or should the U.S. recognize that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the only legitimate government for the country, including the island of Taiwan?
That is a difficult question.
Just last month, the Obama administration approved a $5.8 billion arms deal to Taiwan, including upgrades to the island’s fleet of old F-16 fighter jets. Not surprisingly, that did not set well with the government of the PRC. In fact, Beijing warned that U.S.-Chinese relations would suffer “severe obstacles” as a result of that action.
On the other hand, Republican critics accused the Obama administration of bowing to Chinese pressure with its decision only to upgrade aging Taiwanese warplanes rather than sell the island the later generation fighters it had requested.
According to CBS News, GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney said, “President Obama’s refusal to sell Taiwan new military jets is yet another example of his weak leadership in foreign policy.”
In light of the vital American economic and financial relationships with the PRC, what should the U.S. stance toward Taiwan be? That’s a difficult question, and one that I’m glad I don’t have to decide how to answer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is the “Fair Tax” Fair?

Herman Cain, the presidential candidate, was interviewed October 2 on “Fox News Sunday” and on “This Week.”As is widely known, Cain (b. 1945) was formerly chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza (1986-96). From 1995 to 1996 he was also chairman of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Candidate Cain, somewhat surprisingly, won the Republican presidential straw poll in Florida last month and according to the new CBS News poll, he is now tied with Mr. Romney for first among the Republican candidates.
In both of Sunday’s television interviews, Mr. Cain was asked about his 9-9-9 tax plan, a bold proposal to replace the current federal income tax with a 9 percent sales tax, a 9 percent income tax, and a 9 percent corporate tax.
Mr. Cain has indicated that he sees the 9-9-9 plan as a precursor to the “fair tax,” which would be a national sales (consumption) tax that would take the place of the federal income tax. He is only one of a number of people actively promoting the “fair tax” idea.
But would the “fair tax” be fair? I think not.
The advocates of this new tax plan consider it fair, because “the more you spend the more you pay.” In addition, it is fair, they say, because everyone is taxed at the same rate.
However, it seems clear to me that the fair tax proposal, as well as the 9-9-9 plan, would tax the lower and middle classes more severely than at present, even with a “prebate.” In addition, unless the wealthy are already avoiding taxes through various loopholes, as many are, it means a huge tax break for them.
(The rather complicated plan for prebates is explained at www.FairTax.org.)
Take, for example, a couple with an annual income of $25,000. Most of that income would of course have to be spent on necessities, even though they might receive some prebate. Thus in all likelihood almost all of their income would be subject to the sales (consumption) tax.
But consider a couple with an annual income of, say, $250,000. They no doubt would pay far more taxes, for they would, most surely, spend far more than the first couple. But in all likelihood they would also put a sizable proportion of their income into savings, buying stocks and bonds or making other investments which would most probably increase their wealth in the future.
Thus, the latter would pay a far smaller percentage of their income for taxes while increasing their wealth in years to come. In most cases, the greater one’s income, the smaller the percentage of that income would be used for taxes.
So, the so-called fair tax cannot be called fair for low income people struggling to get by financially. Conversely, it would unfairly favor those with above average incomes.