Sunday, April 30, 2017

Studying for our political economic literacy test: would your Representative in Congress pass?

HERE at Brad DeLong's site, Grasping Reality With All Tentacles, is a transcript of a very interesting recent talk by four economists moderated by Eduardo Porter (who writes for the NYT):   David Autor (Economist at MIT specializing on the economic impact of technological change and the global economy), Ann Harrison (professor of management, business economics, and public policy at Wharton), Brad DeLong (a political economist at Berkeley), and Paul Krugman.

The entire discussion is worth reading.  They cover the reasons behind the reduction of manufacturing in the U.S. from a high of 38% of the economy during World War Two, to 8.6% today.  They look at technological change, our strange and dysfunctional macroeconomic policies since the 1980's, the effect of trade deals, and the effect of China's rise.  

They touch on tariffs and free trade, educational policy, unionization, the role of the social safety net, minimum wage legislation, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  

It's a lot to chew off. It's like a mini-seminar to prepare you for a political economics literacy test! 

Brad DeLong ends with a pitch for the idea of Universal Basic Income. We should not think of this as a "handout," he says: we should think about it more like Mitt Romney thinks about his inheritance.  
Let me make a plea for UBI. The argument against Universal Basic Income is always that it is a "handout", and people don't want handouts. You would have to sell it as something that is not "welfare". 
After my grandfather Bill Lord moved to Florida and became a construction company boss and real estate speculator, he did well: he was briefly the richest man between Tampa and Orlando. Ever since the money from the Lord trusts has boosted my consumption by about $10,000 a year. That has been my UBI. It has been quite welcome at times, and always convenient.

I don't see this as "welfare", as making me a "loser," as offending my "dignity"—even though I had nothing to do with the invention of the Wellman-Lord desulfurization process or any other value created by his accomplishments, and I would accept the argument that he was overcompensated for them. Similarly, Mitt and Ann Romney do not think in any way that they are loochers—losers and moochers—from their UBI, which came from the stock American Motors had given Mitt's father George to incentivize him, which stock they could sell to boost their standard of living when they went to BYU. 
The problem with UBI and with the welfare state is one of perception and of perception of who is deserving and undeserving. Inheritance in America today is not tainted. I think UBI should not be tainted either—and I think Mitt and Ann Romney would agree, if only they would step back and think a little...
This UBI observation here is the bonus. Read the whole article: can you pass the literacy test?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Et tu, Obama?

Obama at University of Chicago, 4/24/17 (Getty photo)
The Washington Examiner has reported that Obama will earn $400,000 for what may be the first paid speech of his post-presidency, a keynote address at the Cantor Fitzgerald Healthcare Conference this September. Cantor Fitzgerald is a private partnership engaged in investment banking and trading; they have a strong presence in health care.

Obama's main legacy is arguably the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which is hanging on by a thread in light of seven years of scorched earth opposition by Republicans. Unable to muster a vote to repeal, the Republican Congress and the Trump White House seem determined to let it whither on the vine.

A key ingredient, if the ACA is to survive, is for insurers and their investors to compete in the insurance exchanges. This means insurers need to be willing to play ball. Many insurers, however, have stopped participating in the ACA exchanges in many states. In 2017, five states (Alabama, Alaska, Oaklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming) have no competition with only one company participating in the exchange; in 12 states (AZ, Conn, Del, DC, HI, Miss., Neb, NJ, RI, SD, Vt, WV) there are just two companies participating.

What the ACA needs is pretty clear: more people enrolled, more government subsidies, and more insurance companies competing. Making progress on these fronts will be difficult with Republicans in charge of government hell bent on sabotaging the ACA.

For these reasons, the Cantor Fitzgerald health care conference is important for the ACA. It's important for insurers and investors who may be thinking about participating in the ACA exchanges in 2018 and beyond, and so it's important to get a dynamic keynote speaker. There could not be a more dynamic speaker to address this conference than Obama.

We know what Obama will say at this conference: he will defend the ACA, and he will promote ideas that will help it survive. We know what he will say there whether he is paid, or whether he appears pro bono. Obama needs to be at that conference; and the conference needs him.

Should Obama be Paid?

Obama will be paid a hefty fee, in line with speaking fees president Clinton commanded shortly after he left office. 

I was critical of Hillary Clinton's speaking circuit tour in the years leading up to her presidential campaign. But I drew a distinction between current office holders, or politicians known to be running (or planning to run) for public office, and past office holders. I continue to think that's a valid distinction. 

President Obama is done with political office. For him to be paid a substantial sum to make a keynote address to defend his signature accomplishment to hedge fund mangers is not corrupt. I don't begrudge him the money. 

Matt Yglesias at VOX disagrees, and Henry Farell at Crooked Timber piles on. And so do the commenters there. Yglesias points out that Harry Truman, who left office in January 1953, left with just his army pension of $112.56/month and retired to his modest home in Independence Missouri. Truman turned down a lucrative board position in a real estate company in Florida; he refused to make commercial endorsements, accept consulting fees, or engage in lobbying. "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency," said Truman.

Now there is an example for an ex-president to follow, suggests Yglesias. Truman, however, did sell the rights to his memoirs to Life Magazine for "well over $500,000" (~$4.5 million today).  But the game of politics is expensive and the salary is not much. So Truman's is an unrealistic example. In 1958, responding in part to Truman's financial difficulties, Congress passed the Former President's Act in order to “maintain the dignity” of the office of the President. The Act provides former Presidents with a pension, funds for travel, office space, support staff, and mailing privileges. Obama will receive a life-time pension of $207,800. 

Shouldn't that be sufficient? asks Yglesias. 
In order to beat the populist demagogues of today, argues Yglesias, mainstream politicians should show some self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership, like Truman did. Obama should make an ostentatious show of living off his government issued pensions (and his $60 million book contract), and otherwise refrain from leveraging his former office for personal gain. No paid speechifying! Embarrass those "other" ex-office holders (read Hillary and Bill). 

Everybody does it is no excuse, says Yglesias. And that's surely true, but when I look at former President George W. Bush, I don't see a problem. Per Politico, Bush delivered more than 200 paid speeches between 2009 and 2015, collecting up to $175,000 per speech. These speeches were given to an eclectic conglomeration of groups, mostly in private, below the radar screen. Bush made speeches to the National Grocers Association, the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He spoke to global wealth management firms and multinational energy companies. He delivered speeches at motivational seminars, to boat builders, and for the Work Truck Show. He has given speeches to the chambers of commerce in San Diego and Wichita. He spoke for an event put on by a homeless shelter in McKinney, Texas. "We paid his normal fee," said Lynne Sipiora to Politico, "which is $100,000."  

This does not seem like corrupt activity to me. These events are enhanced by having a star politician make remarks. In the position of past president, there is not much in terms of political power to sell. Ex-presidents are paid for speeches because they are stars, like actors. They are not paid because anybody thinks they are purchasing political advantage in Washington DC. 

The Obama speech to the Cantor Fitzgerald Health Care conference will be helpful to the cause of having the ACA survive. Obama should give this speech. To jump up and down about how Obama should demonstrate a self-sacrificing spirit and do this speech for free, seems pointless.  To expect that such abnegation by Obama would be the key to get voters to reject a nationalist demagogue like Trump in the next election, seems naive. And why should Obama speak for free? This group of wealthy investors can afford to pay, more so than a homeless shelter, for example. Cantor Fitzgerald is marketing to wealthy investors and hedge fund managers out to make money. If you're ever going to charge for a speech--this would be it. 

On the other hand, insofar as Obama wants to be influential in setting and example for the next generation of politicians, Yglesias is surely correct that he will need to be sensitive to the optics of leveraging his status for personal gain. For him to find a way to set an example with some self-sacrifice and moral leadership is a worthy goal, and good advice. 

But charging a fee to hedge fund managers to promote the ACA? I'm fine with that.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dreaming of Tuscany and Aspen in a World of Robots

And then they came for our hobbies!

A friend sent me another article sounding the alarm about how robots will put us all out of work: Times Higher Education,  The Robots are Coming for the Professionals  (July 2016).

We know, of course, robots, machines, and artificial intelligence are out to replace Uber drivers and long haul truck drivers . .  .  .  They've already replaced assembly line workers. Financial reporting analysts, lawyers, scientists, academics doing literature reviews for basic science are next to receive pink slips because we are being replaced by robots, suggests the article.

What's to become of us?

Does a tree falling in the forest make a noise when there's no one there to hear it? Does a robot on the ski slopes have any fun?  

When we're all out of work because machines are doing everything, where will we get the money to have our fun?  

Fun is not the problem.  We can make a robot that skis, and perhaps we can make one that skis better than we can.  We have machines now that can move faster than we can, that can fly better than we can, perhaps play banjo better than we can; we can have machines  that consume more cannoli without getting fat than we can. But the machines won't ever stop us from skiing, playing banjo, or eating cannoli. 

Where to get the money?

I’m waiting for the “Entrepreneur TM” app: it will crunch data to figure out the best business to go into right now and where the cheapest source of money is. "Entrepreneur TM" will talk to other machines that lend money—they’ll like my "Entrepreneur TM" App’s idea—and then my "Entrepreneur TM" App  will hire other machines to implement the idea. . . . I will collect profits at the end of this process and go out skiing; I will play my banjo and eat cannoli. Oh, and I will ask my "Wine App TM" to select the best wine at the best price for this season. Amazon will deliver it all via drone.

And, of course, everyone will have their own "Entrepreneur TM" App to make this economy go round and round.  It will be a big seller, this "Entrepeneur TM" App. 

How will we make it all run?  We’ll depend on the "Best Congress  TM" App to work with the "Best Statutes TM" and the "Best President TM" App to keep it all running optimally.  As a back up--because we like belts and suspenders--we'll also have a paid subscription with "Supreme Court TM" App. 

Tuscany and Aspen will never have looked better! 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions from Yom HaShoa

Today at sundown, and again tomorrow at 11:00 a.m., horns will blare all over Israel and traffic will come to a stop. Places of public entertainment will be closed by law and all news will focus on commemorating the Holocaust, Yom HaShoa.

In 2014 we spent Yom HaShoa on Kibbutz Ya'acov Ashdot on the Jordan river, just below the Sea of Galilee. We halted our gait out in the banana groves as the horns sounded. Afterwards kibbutz members put on a play in the community center. We didn't understand a word, but the evening was quietly respectful for those who were lost.

Out on the freeways it's less private. Out on the freeways, in the cities, at the airport, it's a celebration that gets in the face of Arab citizens (20 percent of the population) and tourists like us. There is tension and defiance in the lone truck rumbling down the less traveled portion of the road in the video above.

For Jews around the world it's a time to somberly reflect on the enormity of the loss suffered by European Jewry in World War Two, even as the Holocaust is slipping from living memory. Eighty percent of Jews world-wide were born after 1957; in Israel 89 percent of the Jewish population was born after 1953. A few have parents who remember. Everyone has grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts who were touched by the tragedy. There are known names.

At Yad Vashem they try to gather the names and stories of all six million who perished. It's a worthy project to commemorate this lost world, to try and understand what went wrong, to teach lessons about how we might prevent future inhumanity of such magnitude. It may be a futile task.

At the United Nations they observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 each year, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They designate specific themes, attempting to focus on collective experiences and to draw lessons about universal human rights.

In England, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1991-2013), Lord Jonathan Sacks, draws all the wrong conclusions. He equates talk of universal human rights with anti-Semitism. In his view, we recall the Holocaust because anti-Semitism is eternal and to remind us that the Jews will always be the scapegoat of the world. Rabbi Sacks sees no universal lessons for humanity in the Holocaust other than "don't criticize Israel."

"When bad things happen to a group," says Sacks, "its members can ask one of two questions: 'What did we do wrong?' or 'Who did this to us?' The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses," he says.  If it asks, "What did we do wrong?" he correctly observes, "it has begun the process of healing the harm. If instead it asks, 'Who did this to us?' it has defined itself as a victim. It will then seek a scapegoat to blame for all its problems."

The irony, of course, is that Israel very much defines itself as a victim. It defined itself as victim in 1947-48, it defined itself as victim in 1967 and 1973, and it has done so throughout 50 years of occupation. The irony seems to be lost on Rabbi Sacks. Instead of asking the question and looking inward Rabbi Sacks looks for a scapegoat: talk of universal human rights is anti-Semitism he says.

The reason Israel is criticized, he asserts, is anti-Semitism is timeless.  For a thousand years Jews have been the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Europe and so suffered from anti-Semitism, and today, because Israel is the most conspicuous non-Muslim country in the Middle East, it suffers from anti-Semitism. "The argument is always the same," says Sacks. "We are innocent; therefore they are guilty. Therefore if we are to be free, they – the Jews or the state of Israel – must be destroyed. That is how the great evils begin."

But Israel is rightly criticized for 50 years of occupation: for 50 years of keeping most of the Palestinian people under military jurisdiction, without civil or political rights, without access to civilian courts; for 50 years of demolishing homes without due process of law, destroying olive groves, appropriating water, and land; for 50 years of killing Palestinians at a rate of 6:1. 

We can be critical of Israel, says Rabbi Sacks, but we can't use talk of science, religion, or human rights to do it--because that's anti-Semitism. It's the wrong lesson to draw from Yom HaShoa. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Using Participles to Get at Religious Truths

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” – Matthew 20:17-19.

Now after the Sabbath, ... Mary Mag’dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightening, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. . . . So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. – Matthew 28:1-7.

On the first day of the week (after the crucifixion) at early dawn, they (the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee) went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them . . . “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” . . . [And the women spent the day with Jesus, broke bread with him, and ‘he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.’] And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. . . . And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” --Luke 24:1-34

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. –Luke 28:50-53.
Matthew and Luke had their grammatical verb tenses straight. They were telling a chronological tale of physical resurrection witnessed by the two Marys (Matthew), or the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee (Luke). “He will be raised” predicted Jesus, referring to himself in the third person; “he has risen” said the angels to the two Marys staring at the empty tomb, “go quickly and tell the disciples that he has risen;” and “the Lord has risen” said the disciples.

So what’s up with “He is risen?”

This weekend my Facebook feed was full of the celebratory greeting “He is risen.” “He is risen, indeed,” is the expected response. My daughter noticed the phrase  "The Lord is risen" on a church marquee and asked about the odd sentence structure. She is studying to become a teacher, and all of a sudden she worried about having this question pop up on her grammar exam. 

What is the grammatical form of "risen" here, and what is being said?

It's like "Eureka, the dough is risen" I offered unhelpfully. Is that really likely to be a multiple choice option on the exam? 

In thinking about dough, I suggested, “It is risen” does not seem to refer to a chronological event in the sequence of baking bread, but to a metaphysical state of the dough as risen, or not risen. It's like a mother (sarcastically) saying to her teenage son: "he is risen." The mother is not referring to the act of her son getting his butt out of bed, but to his metaphysical state of "sleepy head vs. up and active." 

“You are on the right track” suggested one of my Christian friends. “Risen is His state of being.”  My sister, who knows about these things agreed. “Keep in mind that ‘risen’ can be used both as a verb and an adjective,” she said.

“Risen” as Adjective

Participle we call it. “Risen” in “He is risen” is used as a participle. A "participle", says Websters is: "a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective; especially an English verbal form that has the function of an adjective and at the same time shows such verbal features as tense and voice and capacity to take an object."

"Risen" modifies "He." It's a past participle in this case because it uses the past tense of "rise."

Not a Verb Form: perfect tense and continuous (imperfect) tense

The passages from Matthew and Luke, above, are using “risen” in its verb form. “(I) will be raised on the third day”  predicts Jesus in Matthew 20.  “He has risen from the dead” confirm the angels in Matthew 28. “The Lord has risen” agrees Luke 24. They are all telling a literal, chronological tale. They are referring to the action of rising from the grave.  They are using the perfect tense--signifying this rising was completed at a definite time (three days after Jesus died on the cross). The perfect tenses of "to rise" are: a) he arose, b) he arises, or c) he will arise (past, present, future). Those are the tenses being used by Matthew and Luke.

The continuous (imperfect) tense of the verb form "to rise" is used to speak of actions that continue for a period of time. If we use the progressive form for the verb, we get: "He was rising," "He is rising," or "He will be rising."

The church marquee “The Lord is risen” is not using a verb tense of rising: it's all participle.

So what’s in a Participle?

Because the marquee’s "risen" is used as a participle, the sentence is not speaking about the act of rising at all. The marquee is not telling the literal, chronological tale that Matthew and Luke tell. The marquee is using the present "is," so the sentence suggests we are dealing with Jesus's present state of being. And what is that state?  He is in a state of "being risen." The marquee suggests that Jesus is not dirt in the ground like all those other folks who lived ~1987 years ago. He is part of the godhead. 

It's 2000 years later later and we are no longer using verbs to tell literal tales of resurrection.  We are using participles to communicate more ephemeral religious ideas. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cabo Dreamin'

Cabo/Dorothy Connelly
My friend, Dorothy Connelly, drew this on a recent visit to Cabo San Lucas.  The Los Cabos area, I read, has recovered since it took a direct hit from hurricane Odile in September 2014. With winds of 125 mph, the hurricane demolished hotels and houses, forced the evacuation of 30,000 and killed five. There was widespread looting for days. It has also grown since I last visited. The southern tip of the Baja peninsula now boasts a population of 238,000 (2010 census).

We last visited there in 1986, arriving the old fashioned way, by sailboat, an outmoded form of transportation as Ted Turner has pointed out. Today the thought of flying there seems to me like taking the gondola up a mountain you once climbed. It's just not the same thing, and I'm not tempted.

As we rounded the corner from the open  Pacific in 1986, Humpback whales were breaching off the beach, magnificent frigate birds soared over the arch outside the harbor, and Pelicans frolicked around the returning Marlin sport-fishing boats. The harbor was still a relatively sleepy place. It was a time when elite sailors and Sea of Cortez cruisers shared a recognizably common world. The population of Cabo San Lucas was less than 20,000; today it tops 90,000.  Like parents dying, grandkids being born, and retirement parties, these are signs of time marching on.

Our boat, a 35 foot Wauqiez Pretorien, was a solid craft. It shared approximately everything, except size, number of crew, and expertise, with Ted Turner's Tenacious, the boat that won the tragic 1979 Fastnet race. Today, the world of Sea of Cortez cruising shares approximately nothing with the world of elite sailing.

Here is some interesting footage from Turner's Fastnet adventure. It's closer to my Cabo dreams than tequila and cerveza at poolside . . . .

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dreaming about more civilized Domestic Travel

Matt Yglesias has a very good primer on why air travel is so miserable these days. The key is cost: airline travel per mile has gotten very cheap, and when faced with a choice of paying for better service, most of us opt for cheap and uncomfortable.

Take a look at this chart of airline cost/mile since 1979:

Today we pay less than half what we paid in 1979. And we get less: no meals, narrower seats, less seat angle, less reclining, less leg-room, oversold flights, less overhead storage.

We are more stressed than we were in 1978: we are exposed to jostling, coughing, and germs being spread in tighter and tighter spaces. Is this any way to live?

There are only two ways of improving the situation: paying more, or finding a source to subsidize air-travel.

Even many of us who could afford to pay more, opt for price over quality. We do it despite ourselves. I sometimes purchase Economy Plus on my United flights to Vancouver, but usually I don't. I can stand the cramped seating for the two and one half hour flight up the coast, even as I grit my teeth. It's like a crowded Muni ride to downtown. Unpleasant, but it moves a lot of people for cheap.

The airline deregulation act of 1978 (signed by President Carter) freed carriers to choose which markets to serve and what to charge on routes. It also permitted new carriers to enter the market more freely. The result has been the race to the bottom--in terms of service and price--reflected in the graph above. We've put up with it because there are more flights, travel is safe, . . . and it's cheap.

The government (USDOT) currently subsidizes approximately 175 routes to underserved locations (to the tune of $200/ticket), that would otherwise be unprofitable and underserved by the airline industry.

Cheap flying has opened airline travel to the masses. To be crudely classist and rude, it has made our airlines to resemble third world chicken buses.  That's a good thing because the masses have travel needs and they should be able to vacation and visit family across the country. In this modern, interconnected world, we need inexpensive ways to move people long distances efficiently.

But it raises the question whether airplane travel is the best way to do this? I took the train from San Francisco to Glenwood Springs this winter.  The price for a sleeper room was the same as flying, but the trip was a much more civilized way to travel. There was lots of leg-room, you make real connection and friendship with fellow passengers, there's decent food, and a sleeper car.  It was not very efficient.  The nominally 25 hour trip took more than 30 hours each way. If you want to take four days off work to go skiing in Aspen, it won't be how you travel. But if we decided to invest in connecting our cities with modern, high-speed train service, it would be a different story.  Imagine . . .

Might we not better connect those marginal, out of the way places that are currently subsidized by "Essential Air Services Program," by connecting them to a modern high-speed rail system that truly connects the country. Trump has talked about taking on an infrastructure program to stamp his presidency. Why not a new high speed rail network on the scale of what we did with interstate highways in the 50's and 60's?

Imagine this:

Imagine regular train service connecting Louisville Kentucky and New York in seven hours--in comfort. No taking off your shoes, no getting dragged down the aisle by police goons because seats are oversold? Good food, service with a smile, time to interact, and space to work.

It would require prioritizing a large portion of government expenditures for such a project. Is it beyond us?  Ask John Culbertson (R-Texas), he wants to put people back on the moon and explore Jupiter's moon Europa. If we can dream about space missions to Europa, if we can afford to spend $4-6 trillion on Mideast adventures (The Hill reports a study on the cumulative cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), why can't we dream about a more civilized way to move lots of people around the country?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Martin Scorcese's "Silence:" A Meditation on the Mysteries of the Human Spirit

a film by Martin Scorsese
starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver,
Tadanobu Asana, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, and Liam Neeson.
(rel. in U.S. 12/23/16)(avail. Netflix streaming)
running time: 2hrs 41 minutes

Inigo Lopez de Loyola (1491-1556) was a courtier, a soldier, and a dandy, before devoting his life to asceticism and God. At age 30 a cannon ball ended his military career and Loyola embarked on a religious education. He began with an ascetic regimen in a cave in Catalan that later formed the fundamentals of his Spiritual Exercises. After a brief visit to the Holy Land, Loyola completed a course of primary studies in Barcelona, followed by 10 years of latin and theological studies in Madrid. He received a Masters Degree from the University of Paris in 1534, and there, with a group of six companions, he founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order). At Montmartre they took a vow of poverty and chastity and promised obedience to the pope. Two of these co-founding Jesuits in Paris were Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Simao Rodriquez (1510-1579).

The Jesuits tried to convert Japan to Christianity, but they failed utterly. In 1549 Francis Xavier was the first missionary on the islands and he could not have had much of an impact. Xavier and his three companion missionaries, arriving with Portuguese merchants, did not speak the language. They and their lone Japanese guide (Anjiro) were granted only limited access to the population, and by 1551 Xavier departed. He made a last voyage from Gao (India) to Shangchuan Island (SE China), accompanied by a young Jesuit student, Alvara Ferreira. And there he died.

Shusaku Endo's novel of historical fiction (publ. 1966) is set nearly a century after Francis Xavier's initial visit. Martin Scorcese's film adaptation is populated by characters whose names evoke this founding Jesuit generation.

The film opens in 1639, at St. Paul's college in Macao, where an Italian Jesuit priest receives word that a missionary in Japan, father Cristovao Ferreira, had publicly abandoned and renounced his faith under torture. Two former pupils of Ferreira, Sebastian Rodriguez and Francisco Garupe, are shocked and set off to find him.

Nagasaki harbor
It was a dangerous mission. A lot had changed since Francis Xavier initiated missionary work in Japan 90 years before. The missionaries found brief success. In 1562 they succeeded in converting a feudal lord, Omura Sumitada, whose domain included the harbor at Nagasaki. With Portuguese guns and support Sumitada grew powerful and helped to destroy Buddhist shrines and nominally convert much of the population of western Kyushu to Catholicism. By 1570 there were 20 Catholic missionaries in Japan. By 1580, they say, there were 200 churches serving 150,000 Catholics. But success was short-lived. By 1587 Sumitada was dead of tuberculosis, Japan was being consolidated under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1591), and Christian missionaries were banished from Kyushu. In Nagasaki, on February 5, 1597, 25 Christians were publicly crucified, including five Franciscan missionaries and three Japanese priests. By 1620 the Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity from the Islands altogether, and persecutions continued. 205 Christian missionaries and converts were executed for their faith between 1617 and 1632. The remnant of Christianity went underground.
"Martyrs of Nagasaki" (1628 engraving/artist unknown)
In the film, fathers Rodriguez and Garupe are guided by Kichijro, an alcoholic exiled Japanese fisherman whom they find in a Macao back alley. Kichjiro secures passage on a merchant ship heading to, perhaps Nagasaki, and he leads the priests to a desolate seaside village. There they find an underground Christian community that welcomes them like they are fresh from an audience with the Messiah. 

The villagers, as well as Rodriguez and Garupe, endure increasing hardships as the Shogunate closes in on them. There is torture, anxiety, fear, crucifixions in the ocean, hanging upside down over a pit of excrement with a small incision in your neck, drownings, and through it all a great stubbornness not to renounce faith. It's an entirely unreasonable stubbornness; like those early Christians were stubborn in the Forum. It's a mystery of faith why these simple seaside villagers would endure such tortures and pressures rather than abjure. But it's a recognizable stubbornness. "No one should interfere with another man's spirit," says one. 

The demand of the state, led by a wise and majesterial inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is so simple: step on the fumie, a copper plate with an image of Christ engraved on it. The Inquisitor went out of his way to make it easy for them: they did not have to say anything. A mere formality, suggests the Inquisitor; it doesn't have to mean anything.  The Inquisitor did not seek to humiliate, he only sought the simple act of stepping on the fumie. Why does it mean so much? 

Kichjiro guides the priests, he orients them in the land, keeps them hidden, translates for them, and ultimately betrays them. He is the Judas figure in the story. He is tormented by guilt. He stepped on the fumi, and he did so repeatedly. His weakness in accepting the gesture of stepping on the fumi, racks his conscience. The stubbornness and resolve of his family who did not haunts him. He paid the price of recanting in remorse, guilt, and shame--and yet he, more than perhaps anyone--never lost faith. He stepped on the fumi, he renounced but he never could shake his faith. 

And there is a mystery of what that faith is that makes Kichjiro suffer so. What does Kichjiro believe? What did these simple villagers taught by priests who did not share their language believe? What did they grasp about Christian culture, much less dogma? What was this "faith" to which they clung so fiercely? As Paul Elie points out in a fine essay in the New York Times, when Rodrigues finally meets Ferreira, he says: "The converts? . . .  "They are breakaway Buddhists; . . . they worship the 'Sun of God,' not the Son of God. Those martyrs, dying upside down in the pit? They didn’t die for Christ, he tells Rodrigues, they died for you."

But I'm not so sure. They died for the human spirit, a mysterious thing. 

Ferreira went native. He renounced under torture and made his peace with it. He took on a Japanese wife and children. He continued to study and contribute to Japanese culture by translating scientific tests (am I remembering that right?) Rodrigues, too, finally succumbs to the Inquisitor. He makes his peace and becomes an administrator for the Shogunate, inspecting trade items from the Dutch East India Company for Christian iconography. Yet, there is doubt, the suspicion that both Ferreira and Rodriguez continue to adhere to their faith. 

Silence cost $40 million to produce. Through mid March 2017 it has earned just $16 million. Like Scorcese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, the investors of this film will have a hard time recouping their investment. It's an ill deserved fate for this beautiful and thoughtful film.  

So stream it, buy it, get it from your library, or catch in a theater if you can, but take a look at Silence. 

St. Pierre de Montmartre, Paris
where Jesuit order began

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"The Status Quo in Israel is as Good as it can Get, but It's Immoral"

Larry Derfner has a new book: No Country for Jewish Liberals, launched by Just World Books this week. He means Israel. Gilad Halpern interviewed him yesterday on Facebook in Tel Aviv.  Larry observed that sometimes intractable political problems need outside help: if it were left up to the Whites in South Africa, Apartheid would never have ended; if it were left up to Southern Whites, Jim Crow would never have ended.

Listen to the Halpern interview for the four minute stretch 34:22--38:22. Gilad and Larry are exploring a mystery: why is it that in the age of Netanyahu there is no active, much less effective, counter-movement in favor of the Two State Solution? The answer, they suggest, lies in the fact that the status quo--50 years of occupation and counting--is the best possible solution for Israel from a cost-benefit standpoint. For Israelis today, the status quo is as good as it can get. "The economy is doing very well, there is a minimum of terror, the Americans love us," says Larry.  "We are not paying any price for the occupation." Gilad agrees: "The Left has been reduced to this position of bleeding hearts: the only people who really care about  . . .  giving Palestinians their rights are those who feel morally guilty that the occupation exists, that there are people in Palestine that live without their basic rights—and those people are very, very few."

The only objection to the status quo, if you are a Jewish Israeli, is a moral objection! The only objection to the occupation if you are an American Jew is a moral objection. Think about this next Monday, at your Passover Seder. The only reason the rest of the world should care about this Jubilee year of the occupation is because of the moral oppression inherent in the occupation. It's the same reason we should care about our immigration issues in the United States.

Morality may make us uncomfortable, but it does not motivate sufficiently to change the situation. Israel needs outside help, suggests Derfner.

Noam Sheizaf, speaking at the Kehilla Community Synagogue of the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area last Friday made the same point: Israel will not change its occupation without outside help, and the most obvious outside "help" to be had is the United States stopping to run interference for Israel at the UN, says Sheizaf. Are you listening Nikki Haley?

Sheizaf elaborated on why, among the available choices under discussion for peace in Israel/Palestine--(a) the one state solution, (b) the two state solution, and (c) the status quo--the status quo is the most attractive option from a Jewish perspective. Sheizaf, Derfner, and Halpern are reading from the same Siddur. The status quo is the best option from the Jewish Israeli perspective; the status quo is immoral; and morality doesn't hold a candle to rational self-interest.

The Risks of a One State or Two State Solution

Sheizaf:  "I want to explain something . . .  which has to do with the Jewish public. Since the Jewish public has the assets and has the sovereignty, the keys are in the Jewish public’s hands. It takes an Israeli decision to end the occupation. There is no way around that. And despite the fact that everyone understands it takes an Israeli decision, and not a Palestinian decision, to end the occupation, the political interventions that we keep reproducing don't recognize that fact. They look at both parties. But it takes an Israeli decision to end the occupation. 
"There are many explanations why an Israeli decision to end the occupation has not been forthcoming. Some have to do with fear of existential violence, but I want to offer the political thought which has to do with choices. With political choices, and choices the Jewish public makes. 
"Let’s think about the options that Israeli Jews face. . .  Israeli’s are told—by Obama and everyone else—you either choose the two state solution, or the one state solution, and the one-state solution will be the end of the Jewish dream, the end of Israel. And this may be good or bad, depending on your perspective. But that is what we are told. Because we are not moving towards a two state solution, we are moving to a one state solution. 
"The problems with the one state solution in the Israeli psyche are clear. The . . .  one state solution—meaning giving equal citizenship to everybody on the ground—would mean a reshuffling of everything. The Palestinians might not like being absorbed into the state of Israel, but every Palestinian acknowledges they will use their rights if they get them to change the nature of the state: to redistribute the assets, the ground, the physical assets, the political assets; they’ll redistribute them to create a one state solution. Whether it will still be called Israel or something else is up in the air. Nobody knows. It will be a reshuffling of the entire system. 
"If you’re the privileged group that holds all the assets, and all the political rights, this is the scariest thing you can be thinking about. The one thing we know about the one state solution is we don’t exactly know how it will behave after it’s implemented. We don’t know what the relations between Jews and Palestinians will look like. Will they be peaceful or not? Will the redistribution of wealth and assets work, or not. We know nothing about that. So in the Israeli mind this one state solution is probably the worst outcome, because it’s the big unknown. 
"But let’s look at the two state solution, which is the solution that the international community has supported, and that both publics, at least in theory, support. The two state solution for Israelis is still not a simple thing. It will mean a big internal controversy, some would say a civil war within the Jewish society. Every politician who tried to evacuate some parts of the West Bank in Israel lost his job as prime minster, and one time his life. Olmert fell from power, Rabin was murdered, and Sharon had to break his own political party, the Likud. So politicians see the personal cost of this type of political debate about leaving the West Bank. 
"And to be completely honest, the Israeli fears of what will happen post two-state solution are grounded. Nobody knows what will happen in the relation between Israel and Palestine the day after. There can be all manner of commitments. But that’s all true on the moment when you sign the agreement. Nobody knows what will happen after that. The point about giving Palestinians sovereignty over their state is that they can do whatever they want with it. That’s sovereignty. Nobody can dictate that the moderates will rule. And Israel understands this. There is the chance for violence. There is the chance for internal violence between Jews. There is the external violence that can come with a solution. So this solution might not be as costly as the one state solution, but it is still an enormously costly solution. 

The Status Quo is Rational 

"But the thing that is unspoken in the media, and in the political process that accompanies it, in all the international interventions—the European and the American—is that there is a third option. There is always another option. The third option is the status quo. The third option is to maintain things as they are. And if you’ve been to Israel lately, it’s not such a bad option. The economy is fine, security is fine. 
"It’s not the best of all worlds. Even if you go to Israelis who support maintaining things as they are, they will tell you, "we would like not to have the occupation." I heard that from Dani Dayan, the UN Counsel General in New York. He is a settler, but as a young person he didn’t travel to South Africa because he was boycotting Apartheid. And he says he doesn’t like the occupation. He acknowledges everything that come with it, and it troubles him. And I believe him. I really believe he is an honest man. 
"Israelis might say it is not the perfect solution, but in terms of rational choice, of what costs us more, and what gives us more benefit, there is simply no doubt that maintaining the status quo is the best solution from the Israeli perspective. And we are not talking about the values of good and bad, or evil. I’m not making any moral judgments here. I’m just looking at what a politician might pay if he chooses one of the solutions, the one state or the two state, as opposed to if he chooses the status quo. 
"I’m also talking about what a person in the street might feel, in terms of his own personal security in a one state framework, a two state framework, and in a status quo framework. And everywhere I examine it I would say that the status quo comes in first. The status quo is the best option as far as the Jewish public is concerned. People may argue, as I do, that in the long run the status quo might be the worst option, but political choices are never made in the long run. And there are good reasons for that because reality and political relations are fluid, and you don’t know what will happen. So you make plans for five-ten years. And for the foreseeable future, the status quo is better for Israeli Jews.

 And so Jews are left with a Moral Choice

"This also should be common sense, but it is never referred to because the deep meaning of what I’m arguing is that your personal interest, your deepest interest as a citizen, as a parent, as a mother and a father, the deep political interest is inherently immoral. And what do you do then? 
"I think this is what is at the root of the famous Israeli anxiety over where we are and where we are heading, and the anger over intervention from the outside. And this is why pointing the finger and saying if you don’t implement a two state solution, you’ll end up with a one state solution doesn’t work. Israelis understand the situation perfectly well and they make rational choices. And the rational choice in the short to medium term is to maintain the status quo. And this is why we’ve elected the person whose whole persona, whose whole political existence, is a fabulous talent in maintaining the status quo, despite all sorts of pressures: pressure for war and pressure for peace. . . . 
"Palestinians will never consent to the occupation and maintaining people without rights. It’s simply about control. It’s about controlling people without rights; locking them in the same situation for more, and more, and more years. And I think some of the things that we put a spotlight on, like the tiny settlement here and the appropriation of land there, misses the essence of the story. The essence of the story is about control, about keeping people without rights, by force, for decades and decades. 
"And if you look at the West Bank right now . . . . if you traveled in the 60’s to the West Bank, or in the 70’s, and even the 80’s. . . the place today looks very different. It looks more and more like a prison, the West Bank: it’s surrounded by walls that are 10 yards high, and watchtowers, and there are cameras everywhere, in separate rows, all aimed at maintaining the situation on the ground (indefinitely), with the least possible violence, the least possible problems. 
"Maintaining the status quo; maintaining people under control without rights for more and more years, until something happens. And I think this is the essence of the occupation in the post Oslo period. Not the settlements, not anything else. It’s about maintaining people without rights under control."
And if we care about changing the status quo, Sheizaf ends on a pessimistic note:
"Ten years ago this was such an anomaly in the international system, the idea that half of the population under a certain sovereignty (has no effective say), that one third of the population does not enjoy the rights and benefits of the political system, that it’s a democracy for this and not a democracy for that, that these can participate, and those are held through force, that these are held through consent and are patriotic while those are held at gun-point . . . . This is such a bizarre situation in the international system that I thought it cannot hold; it cannot hold. 
"There was a sense of inevitability about the occupation (that it would end) in the 90’s, and even during the second Intifada because we looked at the suicide bombings and we said “this is a product of the situation,” and the situation cannot hold. But when I look at the world today, I see more and more places where people are held without rights, and you see more and more walls and watchtowers everywhere in the world. And you see more and more democracies thinking about how can we hold these refugees, or these countries that we’ve gotten into everlasting wars with, how can we hold it, this unnatural situation where people are being held by force without rights for longer and longer. How can we maintain it? 
"And I don’t believe in this inevitability any more." 
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