Why the Religious Should Value Secular Governance

Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans and clergy across different faiths, denominations, and political persuasions favor restricting political activity by churches and nonprofits (notwithstanding the existing workarounds they already use anyway).

That is because these institutions are already exempt from taxes and most reporting requirements, meaning they would be at risk of becoming channels for dark money into politics. Most people of faith do not want their churches corrupted by politics. This was a major impetus for separation of church and state being enshrined from the very beginning of American history, mostly by and with support from devout people. Continue reading

The U.S. Government Programs Keeping Millions Out of Poverty

Americans across the political spectrum are conditioned to believe that the government safety net, broadly called “welfare”, is woefully inefficient. While it is no doubt true that public sector solutions are inadequate in many respects –something both major political wings agree on, albeit for different reasons — as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reminds us, these programs are the only thing keeping tens of millions of Americans out of poverty.

More analysis from EPI:

Social Security was by far the most powerful anti-poverty program in the United States last year, keeping 25.9 million people out of poverty. Refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, kept 9.8 million people out of poverty. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, kept 4.7 million people out of poverty, while other targeted programs (such as housing subsidies, unemployment insurance, and school lunch programs) made it possible for millions more to keep their heads above water.

In 2014, 48.4 million people (or 15.3 percent of the U.S. population) were in poverty, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)—a more sophisticated approach for measuring economic well-being than the official federal poverty line. However, that number would have been significantly higher were it not for programs like the ones listed above. In the absence of stronger wage growth for low and middle-income workers, these safety-net programs play an increasingly important role in helping struggling families afford their basic needs.

Note the last sentence, which I have bolded for emphasis. The ever-more contentious debate about government expenditure on welfare would be a moot point if the private sector paid workers better and/or provided benefits, thereby precluding the need to turn to state programs. Simply put, most people would not turn to the government if there was more stable and liveable employment available. Until then, these flawed, threatened, and still vital programs are all that millions of Americans have.

Study Finds Government Influenced By Mostly Wealthy Interests

Think Progress reports on new research that won’t surprise anyone but helps confirm a troubling trend: the policies and actions of the U.S. government overwhelmingly align with the preferences of wealthy citizens and well-moneyed interest groups.

“That’s according to a forthcoming article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. The two looked at a data set of 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and matched them up against surveys of public opinion broken down by income as well as support from interest groups.

They estimate that the impact of what an average citizen prefers put up against what the elites and interest groups want is next to nothing, or “a non-significant, near-zero level.” They note that their findings show “ordinary citizens…have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” The affluent, on the other hand, have “a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy,” they find, “more so than any other set of actors” that they studied. Organized interest groups similarly fare well, with “a large, positive, highly significant impact on public policy.”

When they hold constant the preferences of interest groups and the rich, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks,” they note. The probability that policy change occurs is basically the same whether a small group or a large majority of average citizens are in favor. On the other hand, all else being the same, opposition from the wealthy means that a particular policy is only adopted about 18 percent of the time, but when they support it it gets adopted 45 percent of the time. Similar patterns are true for interest groups.”

While it remains to be seen whether their research will stand up to scrutiny, I think it’s safe to say that, judging from how powerless or disinterested our politicians are with respect to broadly serving the public good, our government is hardly indicative of true democracy. But what are your thoughts?

Guns and Freedoms

By my observation, a good number Americans justify gun ownership on the basis of defending themselves, individually or collectively, against government tyranny (however it may manifest). Setting aside the feasibility of armed civilian resistance (which is a different discussion altogether), I find it interesting that the US seems to be the only stable, long-lived democracy for whom a significant proportion of citizens feel the need to keep the state in check through arms.

By my knowledge, every other free and democratic society doesn’t rely on armed civilians to ensure that their rights aren’t violated — or at least they don’t feel the need to. Indeed, many of the countries that perform better than the US in metrics of civil liberty, economics, and government transparency have no such political rhetoric attached to gun ownership. Among wealthy, industrialized democracies, America is an interesting outlier.

But why is this the case? What are other successful — often more successful — democracies doing  in order to preclude the need for armed citizenry?  And what are the implications of this curiously adversarial power dynamic? What does it say about the nature of our government, society, and culture? I have my own ideas, but I’d rather leave the floor to you all.

The History of American Assassinations

It’s a long read, but this detailed account about the legal history of opaque assassinations and spying is well worth your time, for it reveals that the seemingly recent growth of executive power — namely through the national security apparatus — has been decades in the making. It was especially (though not solely) intensified by none other than Ronald Reagan, widely regarded as a defend of American freedom and values. 

In December 1981, Reagan signed the executive order 12333 undoing the previous decades’ reforms with the stroke of a pen. For cover, Reagan’s people planted fake scare stories through Jack Anderson about non-existent Libyan assassination squads infiltrating U.S. borders, waterskiing their way across the Great Plains to spring John Hinckley and wreak havoc on the American Way of Life.

And that is the back story to Reagan’s executive order 12333, the one that allegedly banned assassinations and allegedly made him so much more progressive than Bush or Obama.

Reagan not only gave the CIA carte blanche in the US to spy, but he also massively expanded the powers of the FBI and law enforcement to spy on Americans domestically with another executive order in 1983, paving the way for a repeat of all the awful abuses uncovered by Sen. Church, which only started coming to light at the end of Reagan’s presidency.

In other words, there is arguably a legal precedence for the drone attacks, warrantless wiretapping, legal opaqueness, and other questionable government practices. Indeed, the courts have been either willing to abide by these actions, or forced to begrudgingly accept their legality given the precedence. Excess and unaccountable state power is not only being further entrenched in our system, but it’s been intricately established within it for some time. Needless to say, that’s very troubling. 

Our Unpopular Congress & What it Says About Politics

I’ll start this off by letting the following graph speak for itself:

Popularity of Congress


The unfortunate data may not be very surprising to most readers, as the sheer disgust and apathy towards our legislative body has pretty much become a canard in public discourse. Though Americans, like electorates everywhere, have always been cynical towards their public officials, it seems our collective sense of disconnection and discontent is at an unprecedented high (at least compared to recent history). Exhibit  B:

It’s not just the current Congress’s theatrics, pettiness, and partisanship that have turned us away from our ostensible representatives. After all, none of that is new – politics has always been a dirty business everywhere, even among our lionized Founding Fathers. The fact is, the 112th Congress – many of whose members will continue to serve in the newly established 113th – was the worst-performing in over 30 years, and by a considerable margin.

The last graph is courtesy of Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who wrote an article listing 14 reasons why this is the worst Congress ever. Needless to say, it’s a pretty grim read.

But does all this public loathing of Congress come down to its mere ineffectualness? It may seem like a strange question to ask – of course we hate our public officials for being incompetent or pernicious. But Steven Mazie of BigThink, in a partial response to Klein’s article, raised an interesting observation – the preceding 111th Congress was more productive as far as lawmaking, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference in terms of public affection:

 Approval ratings during 2009 and 2010 (the span of 111th Congress) were only marginally higher than in 2011 and 2012 (the 112th), and lag way behind 2004 levels, when at one point nearly half of Americans were satisfied with the job Congress was doing. So there must be something else at work, some deeper cause of our dissatisfaction.

Of course, comparing one Congress with its direct predecessor doesn’t give as big of a picture as I would like. What about previous Congresses? Did they show a similar lack of correlation between support and effectiveness? Either way, this raises a good point, one that may go to the heart of our political culture.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau might say that Congress has become more and more unpopular as Americans have begun to appreciate its basic illegitimacy as a law-making institution. For Rousseau, true political freedom is only found when each citizen is an active participant in the law-making process of a society. If people are to live harmoniously and autonomously, they must all have a direct role in public affairs. Voting for “representatives” to do the job for us is no substitute. In fact, it is a recipe for slavery.

Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void— is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.

Maybe we’re getting what we deserve after all these years of selling ourselves to our representatives in Congress. It’s difficult to imagine a viable alternative — other than in small, local experiments, direct democracy seems out of the question for the 311 million members of the American polity. One ironic possibility, which I develop at the Economist today, is to empower House members with longer terms in office. There is strong evidence that frequent elections only exacerbate the travesty of Washington’s legislative slug-fest.

In any case, Rousseau’s complaints about representative government have never rung so true. We elect Congress, and yet we hold cockroaches in higher esteem.

Had I the time, I’d weigh in on this rather prescient observation. I definitely think there’s truth to it: the average American is woefully disconnected from the political process. Few of us even bother to know who our direct representatives are, let alone how the political process we’re a part of actually functions. It’s easy to hate something you have no stake in, especially as it breeds an elitist class of detached public officials that seem evermore indifferent to you, if not predatory.

But would participation really make the difference? Would we not, for example, be cynical towards those among us who come to power through the participation of those who disagree with us? Is cynicism the inevitable by-product of politics in an information age where we know a lot more about what’s going on, including (if not especially) the bad. Though it’s a counter-factual that can never be determined, I wonder if politics would’ve been any less pessimistic had the body politic of the past been as (relatively) informed as we have?

Most importantly, I wonder if all this discontent and seething will actually amount to anything – and if so, whether the outlet will be productive and beneficial rather than destructive.


Regulating the Supplements Industry

A  Mother Jones article some months ago explored an increasingly pertinent topic: the regulation of supplements and complementary drugs that have largely been devoid of oversight. This is an important issue given the rapid growth of the industry, which is estimated to be worth around $20 billion as of last year (the data seem to vary by source, but that’s the most common figure I’ve found).

It all begins with St. John’s Wort, an herbal remedy that’s been shown to treat mild and moderate depression to some extent, but is otherwise not a viable cure for such things, as is often believed or advertized. By the far most popular supplement on the market, Americans spend around $55 million on it annually, purchasing it mostly from large retailers likes GNC, Whole Foods, and the Vitamin Shoppe.

But SJW has been found to produce adverse affects with other medications, including antidepressants. While these kinds of drugs are legally required to undergo clinical trials, regulatory approval, and labeling, supplements are exempted:

The real problem here lies in transparency to consumers—a problem that goes directly back to the supplement’s manufacturers. In a 2008 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine that tested 74 different SJW brands, less than a quarter of the product labels identified possible interactions with antidepressants. Even more disturbing was that only 8 percent identified possible interactions with birth control.

Many groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have tried to push the FDA to standardize SJW labels to properly reflect possible dangers. But since supplement makers are not required by law to warn consumers about health risks associated with their products, it hasn’t been easy. “These companies fight warning labels like the dickens, and whether they intend it or not, that affirms the belief that natural products are unequivocally good for you,” says Stephen Gardner, litigation director at CSPI.

It’s a common fallacy among many people that what is natural is therefore better and, conversely, what is synthetic is undesirable. This ignores the fact that nature is full of toxic things, while some artificial medicines – which are often derivative of organic substances – are demonstrably safe and effective (compare the prevalence of disease nowadays to what it was decades ago – both the variety of illnesses and their severity have gone done markedly).

Proposed cures and treatments, regardless of their origin, should be judged in a case-by-case basis. Their merit derives from their ethics, safety, and efficacy, not whether or not they’re traditional, natural, or made in a laboratory. Such origins are irrelevant as to their effectiveness, which is why we have experiments, clinical trials, and peer review.

So why don’t federal regulators force the supplement industry to include warning labels on their products? One big reason is that the industry has powerful allies in Washington. The current murky regulatory force in the supplement world is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which lets supplements fly to the shelves without first having to demonstrate either safety or effectiveness to the FDA. Unlike prescription meds, the burden of proof for supplements resides with the federal government: The FDA has to prove that products are unsafeafter the fact, rather than manufacturers having to prove that they are safe for use in the first place. (Think back to weight-loss supplementephedra, which took the FDA more than seven years to ban—despite being conclusively tied to heart attack, stroke, and death.)

Many have taken issue with the DSHEA, and in February 2010 Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would increase regulation of dietary supplements that might pose health risks. Enter Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has received upwards of $888,000 in campaign contributions from the health product industry since 2002. Hatch, one of the lead authors of the 1994 DSHEA, has even stronger ties than that—both his son and five former aides are lobbyists in Washington representing the very industry funneling him all that campaign cash. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise then that shortly after McCain’s bill proposal, Hatch met with the Arizona senator for some “real talk” on supplement regulation. In a letter released after their private meeting, Hatch thanked McCain for withdrawing his support for parts of the bill that “would do great harm to the dietary supplement industry.” A castrated version of the bill eventually made it through, and the supplement industry came out unscathed.

There’s no doubt that the pharmaceutical and medical lobbies can be just as conniving as any other special-interest group. Drug makers and doctors are just as liable to be mistaken or immoral as anyone else. The profit motive erodes efforts to find certain cures or manufacture certain drugs. The system clearly has its problems.

However, we’re only kidding ourselves if we think alternative medicine proponents are any more incorruptible and honest. There’s no doubt that many of them are sincere and well-meaning, and that they have some understandable qualms about the modern healthcare industry (as do a lot of doctors).

But humans are keen to exploit any money-making trend that they can, and the supplement industry is no exception: it has the same selfish and dishonest reasons to peddle it’s own cures as big pharma does, given how many people are uncritically shelling out billions for its wares.

Last year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) introduced a new bill requiring that supplements that could cause health problems or interact with other drugs—like St. John’s wort—display mandatory warning labels on their products. The bill has not yet been up for a vote, but the industry has already riled up huge opposition—headed, you guessed it, by Hatch himself. The main argument, it seems, is going to hinge on the necessity of labeling products derived from natural sources.

“Supplements are largely based on food and widely considered to be safe, so they don’t need to be labeled,” says Mike Greene, vice president of government affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the industry’s largest trade group. “For example, you don’t see anyone labeling grapefruit, even though it interacts with Lipitor.”

Whether or not the Durbin bill will make it through the Senate remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, Gardner takes issue with Greene’s argument. “You don’t see people selling grapefruits as cancer cures,” he says. “Look, we’re not interested in stopping people from buying SJW if they know what they’re getting. But we are interested in stopping them if they’re in the dark about it. These companies have prevented people from knowing when they should question them. That’s not logic and that’s not fair.”

So what do you guys think – should government regulate this industry, and does it even have an obligation to in the first place? Or is this best left up to consumers to figure out for themselves?

Why Won’t Businesses Hire?

Supposedly, it’s because the US business environment is unfriendly. Corporations want to place all the blame for our economic problems on the government. It is certainly true that the state has not been guiltless in this mess. But neither have business elites. Let us analyze the facts.

Contrary to popular belief, the United States still remains among the top ten countries in the world in terms of economic freedom, business friendliness, and competitiveness (sources include the Freedom of the World Index , the Index of Economic Freedom, the Ease of Doing Business Index, and the Global Competitiveness Report ; note that many of the countries that surpass us in these areas are what we would otherwise call “socialist” – they have higher wages, universal healthcare, more state intervention, and so on).

Yet companies are firing people, freezing wages, slashing benefits, and refusing to hire, citing the business climate as too unpredictable, unfriendly, and oppressive to facilitate investing in the economy. Really? If that is the case, how have companies managed to gather a total of $2 trillion in cash reserves, continue to pay their CEOs millions in bonuses, and consistently make profits throughout the recession (in some cases even breaking records)? By just about every measure, most businesses are clearly doing well.

The government has screwed a lot of things up, but it has little to do with business leaders deciding they want to pocket more money for themselves while pretending, despite all the evidence, that they can’t afford to do their part.


Why the Sikh Temple Shootings Aren’t Treated as Seriously

I’m sharing this excellent New Yorker article by Naunihal Singh in its entirety, for I think it’s spot on.

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

The tragic events in the Milwaukee suburb were also treated differently by political élites, many fewer of whom issued statements on the matter. While both Presidential candidates at least made public comments, neither visited, nor did they suspend campaigning in the state even for one day, as they did in Colorado. In fact, both candidates were in the vicinity this weekend and failed to appear. Obama hugged his children a little tighter after Aurora, but his remarks after Oak Creek referred to Sikhs as members of the “broader American family,” like some distant relatives. Romney unsurprisingly gaffed, referring on Tuesday to “the people who lost their lives at that sheik temple.” Because the shooting happened in Paul Ryan’s district, the Romney campaign delayed announcement of its Vice-Presidential choice until after Ryan could attend the funerals for the victims, but he did not speak at the service and has said surprisingly little about the incident.

As a result, the massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans. Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place.

The two incidents were obviously different in important ways: Holmes shot more people, did so at the opening of a blockbuster film, and was captured alive. There were also the Olympics. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Oak Creek would have similarly dominated the news cycle if the shooter had been Muslim and the victims had been white churchgoers. Both the quantity and content of the coverage has been clearly shaped by the identities of the shooter and his victims.

The relative neglect of Oak Creek was not a foregone conclusion. Although the shooting took place at a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, the narrative of the incident contained enough archetypal elements to be compelling to all Americans. The murders took place at a house of worship on a Sunday. There was the heroic president of the congregation who, even though he was sixty-two, battled an armed attacker, sacrificing his own life. There were the children who sounded the alarm and joined fourteen women huddled in a tiny pantry for hours, listening to the agony of the wounded outside. There were the relatives at home, receiving texts and phone calls from loved ones. There were heroic police officers, a shootout, and the attacker’s death by self-inflicted gunshot.

There is also Wade Page himself, with his hate tattoos, photographs in front of swastikas, and his Southern Poverty Law Center dossier. Page so fits our stereotypes of white supremacists that, if he did not exist, it would have been necessary for Quentin Tarantino to invent him. Page appears to have hated blacks, Jews, Latinos, and probably everything else associated with modern multicultural America. Here is a figure whose malevolence should frighten all Americans, not just Sikhs, in the same way that Holmes should terrify all of us, not just those who watch movies at midnight.

Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim. As a Sikh teaching at a Catholic university in the Midwest, I was both confused and offended by this framing. One need not be Pastor Niemöller to understand our shared loss, or to remember that a similar set of beliefs motivated Timothy McVeigh to kill a hundred and sixty-eight (mainly white) Americans in Oklahoma City.

A week later, post-Paul Ryan, Oak Creek has largely receded from public consciousness, along with the important policy issues it raises. There will be little debate about claims that the Department of Homeland Security has understaffed its analysis of domestic counterrorism in response to political pressure. There will also be little attention to the accusation that the military has repeatedly been willing to accept white supremacists in its ranks. Representative Peter King will continue to hold hearings about the threat posed to America by Islamic extremism while refusing to investigate domestic right-wing groups, even though right-wing groups are more worrisome by any systematic measure.

In the end, the events of Oak Creek are tragic on at least two levels. There is the tragedy inherent in the brutal murders, the heroic sacrifices, the anguished waiting, and the grief of relatives whose lives will never be the same. But there is also the larger one of our inability to understand this attack as an assault upon the American dream and therefore a threat to us all. The cost of this second tragedy is one that the entire nation will bear.

Indeed, as diverse and welcoming as our society can be, many people seem to have a difficult time connecting with certain groups that don’t comport with the “mainstream” American background. To be blunt, the Sikhs are non-white and non-Christian, and are thus subsequently seen as foreign “others.” It matters little that they’re integrated relatively well into their communities, and that they’re some of the most successful and enterprising people in this country.

Despite being a nation ostensibly united by ideas and dreams rather than ethnicity, faith, and the like, most “real” Americans can’t see minorities as being American as well.

Economic Freedom And the Public Good Part 1

According to the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, America’s preeminent conservative think tank, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland have freer economies than the United States (and the rest of the world for that matter). Several other countries with high rates of prosperity aren’t that far behind us either.

So despite having equal or higher tax rates, universal healthcare, and more public investment in education and infrastructure, these countries have managed to remain more pro-business and more economically competitive than the US. They’re not perfect by any stretch, but their example should lead us to wonder: why can’t the “best country in the world” pull of a similar balance between the public and private sectors?