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Reich on US joblessness   (29.9.11)

American economist and politician Robert Reich writes in the Guardian today about the US unemployment problem. J.M. Keynes, he says, was right: the only economic actor that can pull America out of its employment slump is the state. His line of argument is that, since the "Great Recession" has catastrophically stymied capital flow within the US economy, the state should stimulate consumer spending (and thus private sector growth) by dishing out the dollars in the form of public sector jobs.

I post with a certain hesitation on this subject, since I have a very limited understanding of economic theory. But I am struck by one or two commonsense objections to this view. Foremost amongst my objections is this: Reich seems to think that America's economic problems are only problems of growth. But they're not. Like Britain and the eurozone, there is also a debt crisis. Any state spending on public sector jobs would likely be financed by more borrowing. That leaves a lot riding on the multiplier effect (the Keynesian principle whereby increased state spending generates, through stimulated growth, tax revenues larger than the initial spend). Reich's column sounds lovely and squishy because it is basically a promise of free money for everyone, if only we would follow the Gospel of Keynes. As the electorate well knows, however, Life's Not Like That.

As our financier friend slightly hyperbolically indicated a few days ago, a debt crisis of this scale can ultimately be resolved only one way -- namely, through a painful period of debt repayment. This may mean decades of low or non-existent economic growth and high unemployment. No sane politician, Robert Reich included, would openly admit this. But it may well be true.

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A shameful day   (22.9.11)

for the United States.

Forgiveness   (12.9.11)

Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who "forgives" you -- out of love -- takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

— Dag Hammarskjöld (former UN Secretary-General)

The notion of forgiveness has been exercising me on and off for the past year or so. Last year the former Khmer Rouge jailer, Duch, was found guilty of war crimes after a tribunal at the Hague. But remarkably, during that trial, Duch pleaded for "forgiveness", and furthermore, he told the trial that

I told Nic Dunlop [a journalist], ‘Christ brought you to meet me,’ [...] I said: ‘Before, I used to serve human beings, but now I serve God.’

The New Testament has a fair bit to say about forgiveness, mostly along the lines of Matthew 6:14-15, although there is ambivalence about whether repentance is a prerequisite for such forgiveness, as indicated by Acts 3:19:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord[.]

I'm not really interested in the "proper" interpretation of conflicting scriptural passages here. Rather, I wonder what are the ethics of forgiveness -- and can the various possible Christian interpretations of forgiveness really be considered ethically sound? Let's suppose there are two basic Christian formulations of the forgiveness ethic:

F1. We should freely forgive the wrongs of others as an expression of God's mercy and grace.
F2. We should forgive the wrongs of others only as a response to their repentance.

What is striking about Duch's plea for forgiveness is that it was directed not at the victims of his crimes -- most of whom are, of course, dead -- but rather at a judge. My instinctive response to this situation is that it is not within a judge's moral power to "forgive" a wrong of which s/he is not the victim. Indeed, even if those victims still alive and capable of delivering such forgiveness chose to do so, they can surely only forgive their "portion" of the wrong, and not the whole lot. It strikes me as a conceptual truism that only the victim of a wrong can forgive the wrongdoer, which renders F1 morally implausible except as an attitude taken only towards wrongs done personally to the forgiver. Norman Geras also finds F1 forgiveness morally problematic:

[F]orgiveness involves abandoning any 'resentment, indignation or anger' over some offence. Now, let us assume we are faced with someone guilty of mass murder but who is completely unrepentant about it. They reaffirm that they are at ease about what they have done, even that they would do the same thing again. Can it be right to forgive such a person? [...] It is, in effect, a willingness to forgive everything in advance; which seems to me a bit like condoning it.

So on the one hand, we have the absurdity of "forgiving" what is not yours to forgive, and of "forgiving" acts which have not been disowned by their perpetrators.

But on the other hand, there is a further absurdity to F1 forgiveness -- and that is the absurdity of trying to "forgive" things for which the person being "forgiven" is entirely blameless. For example, the idea that the "church" should "forgive" things it regards (doctrinally speaking) as sinful -- such as homosexuality, or divorce -- can make sense only if we take forgiveness not to mean the pardoning of a wrong but to mean instead a non-judgemental attitude of mind (ie, forgiveness in the sense of "being a forgiving person"). The absurdity (should I say hypocrisy?) here is of being sufficiently judgmental to identify sinfulness in others, while simultaneously claiming not to engage in the very act of judgement that causes you to identify the sinfulness. For this reason, when a "Christian" tells me (as has been known) that "I am forgiven" for my homosexuality, I am inclined to laugh in their face (as has also been known). Furthermore, I imagine that someone who divorces a violent spouse, upon being told that "s/he is forgiven" for the sin of divorce, might deliver an angrier riposte.

Tatchell on gay blood ban   (10.9.11)

The blanket ban on gay men donating blood was lifted last week, and replaced with new rules which restrict gay men from giving blood within 12 months of their most recent sexual encounter. In yesterday's Guardian, Peter Tatchell welcomed the end of a blanket ban, but argued that a 12-month limit is still unjustified.

There are two considerations here. The first is statistical: it is true that more gay people than straight people have HIV/AIDS in the UK, and if the risk assessment is made on that basis alone, gay people would present a greater risk to the blood supply. However, this approach presumes that it is gay men as a group who donate blood, rather than individuals within that group, whose practices vary widely in their riskiness. The second consideration, then, is personal conduct; and it is this factor that shows the irrationality of a purely statistical approach. Gay men who practise safe sex with a single long-term partner are at a much lower risk of contracting HIV/AIDS than women who have unprotected sex with multiple male partners. Does it make sense to allow these women to donate to the blood supply without restriction, while preventing monogamous gay men from doing so? Clearly not, and this is Tatchell's point.

In a system which already relies on people's honesty not to donate under circumstances where they are forbidden from doing so, I don't see why every individual who wishes to donate blood should not simply be given a questionnaire about their sexual practices over the past 12 months. This would end the discrimination that Tatchell rightly identifies, while making the blood supply even safer.

Auckland Synod supports gay ordination   (6.9.11)

Auckland Diocesan Synod this week passed the following motion:

That this Synod

[1] Holds that sexual orientation should not be an impediment to the discernment, ordination, and licensing of gay and lesbian members to any lay and ordained offices of the Church; and further

[2] persons in committed same-sex relationships likewise should not be excluded from being considered for discernment, ordination, and licensing to any lay and ordained offices of the Church.

[3] commits to an intentional process of listening to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, organized by the Archdeacons in consultation with the gay and lesbian community.

[4] commits to an ongoing discussion with the ministry units, asks the Archdeacons to facilitate this, and invites responses to those discussions to be submitted to Diocesan Council by 31st March 2012; and

[5] commits to support the process and work of the Commission to be appointed by General Synod Standing Committee, as resolved at its meeting in July 2011.

The motions was proposed by Revd Glynn Cardy and seconded by Margaret Bedggood, both of the parish of St-Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland. This is a good day for the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand. (There is a sermon by Glynn Cardy on these issues here.)

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