Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I really loved the crime-solving drama Numb3rs. I was very sad to see it end with such an abrupt finale. Anyway, this post is not about that show.

It's about my inability to comprehend large numbers. I've just never had a knack for numbers. Not equations. Just numbers. For example, when Ohio State signs a new football coach for an exorbitant price, I don't fully grasp the sheer volume of money involved. But I know it's very high. And I know that it's wrong.

So when I see images making sense of big numbers, I find them helpful.  That's what I'm posting today. Mint.com and Wallstats.com put together some really great images. You can see them here.

But the image that got me thinking about all of this today came from Moveon.org. It provides a graphic that helps me to make sense of why we are seeing the Occupy Wall Street movement emerge. Take a look. Maybe you'll find it helpful as well.
Click on the image to make it larger.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Challenge of Staying

Jennifer Zickel and her two daughters, Emily, 4, and Natalie, 7.
I was an altar server. I don't remember the age when I started, but I think it was fourth grade or so. Sister Theresa was charged with the task of getting a bunch of kids--literally--to fill the role of aiding the priest (Father Gideon in my case) with Mass. Our parish was amazingly small. I still don't understand how it even stays open. I guess I want to say that, looking back, it definitely wasn't one of these intimidatingly large cavernous spaces. 

You had one of two options: you were responsible for the "book" (or Sacramentary if you're all about accuracy) or the "bells" which were rung during the Eucharistic Prayer. After serving for a while, I got the hang of everything and started to enjoy it. Throughout high school I would help out with various Masses, covering Midnight Mass at Christmas. Looking back, the experience was positive for me. It got me thinking about my religious tradition and enabled me to participate. In all honesty, I think I did like how I was special. I got to wear an alb, swing incense around, and generally be special. As a kid, it's amazing how important such things can be. 

I'm happy to say that I matured in my understanding of Catholicism and was less into bells and smells and more into the deeper, fundamental questions about the human experience. Without going into detail, I immersed myself in theology, ending up with undergraduate and graduate degrees and working as a campus minister. Then I had enough. The ritual. The hierarchy. The basic tenets of the faith didn't align with what I thought. It was only later, years actually, that I was open to returning to the Catholic world in a way that was more than an obligatory visit for one reason or another. I feel much more comfortable in my very nuanced understanding of what it means to be Catholic. 

I've become part of a really amazing parish in Ithaca, New York. It's diverse and welcoming. It's filled with thinking people. It helps that Cornell is down the street. The pastor is genuine and a true friend. Homilies aren't expected fluff or so stale that the homiletics books from 1970 remain central resources. The parish is alive. 

One thing I hadn't thought much about lately is the fact that on most weekends those helping the priest and pastoral associates (who are women) are girls. More often than not, the altar servers are female. One of them often wears headbands that are bright and sparkly. Just as one would expect from a young girl. It almost reminds you of Winnie from The Wonder Years. She makes me smile because she seems to really enjoy participating in the liturgy in that way.

So I think about this because of something I just read in The Washington Post. It's a story about a parish in Virginia that is no longer going to train girls to be altar servers. It's not the first. While the Diocese of Columbus had opened up the opportunity for girls and women to be altar servers quite a while ago, others have been much slower and some still restrict the role to boys and men. It's as if we're still in a time when Studebakers were parked outside and priests had to say daily Mass, even when that meant they were mumbling to themselves.  The Second Vatican Council opened up the church to new approaches to an ancient way of life and practice. Priests turned around, common language was used (although we're about to have some changes to that), and women were more fully embraced by a church that had for centuries relegated them to second-class status. I love that the cool girl here in Ithaca wears her headbands.  
When Mass was a daily necessity for the individual
priest and less about the celebration of a community.

So now, I read this story about a parish in Virginia and it makes me sad about this church that professes to be universal and welcoming. I've never had to deal with exclusion. I'm a white male who is educated and comfortable financially. I don't have many of the worries or feelings that others do because of marginalization. But that doesn't mean I don't care or I don't think of myself as an ally to those who are excluded. As someone who is about to become a parent, I am realizing that such decisions could impact my child if I had a daughter. Yet, even if I had a boy, I still feel like I'll have discomfort being part of a church that excludes individuals because of their sex. I don't think I want to have a son be part of something that reinforces a view of the world that should have faded a very long time ago. 

I guess I don't think about these things often because I do live in a community that values diverse views and experiences. I live in a community that is highly educated and thoughtful. I don't think the sparkly headbands are going away. But the church is much more than simply the parish I belong to these days. What's going on in Virginia and elsewhere is damaging to the whole. The challenge for me is to try to make sense of why excluding women helps to build a more just and peaceful society or even a more dynamic church. Women have long played important roles in the church and that's only continuing to increase with lay ministers and lay leadership. So what's going on with something like this? If there is fear of watering down Catholicism, then I'll have to say goodbye. Jesus wasn't really into excluding people. I'd prefer to follow his example rather than some bishop's grasp for a church and a time that is gone. The challenge of staying is believing that issues such as these, in the longview, will be seen as subtle steps backwards in the long march of a pilgrim people to right relationship with one another and with God. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Technocracy, democracy, and what it means

Today, print media has published articles exploring an emerging trend in governance--the role of the technocracy. The first article comes from the The New York Times.  It focuses primarily on the recent changes that have taken place in the post-Berlusconi Italy. Elisabetta Povoledo, writing for The Times noted that
Mr. Monti said he hoped the new government could restore market confidence and soothe a tense political climate. “We worked seriously and paid close attention to the quality of the choices,” he said at a news conference. He added that he had been encouraged by Italy’s European partners and the international community and that the rapid formation of the government would relieve the pressure of markets on Italy.
The ministers are drawn mostly from Italy’s academic world, some with strong ties to the Catholic Church, but also banking and the upper echelons of civil service.
Because of the seriousness of the challenges facing Italy, there is little hope outside of turning to experts. The long-term prospects for this apolitical group of academics and business leaders are questionable, primarily because such an approach to governance stands in contrast to the electoral realities for a democracy and its political parties. But for the time being, these leaders are viewed as saviors from a system fraught with political jockeying that, in many ways, has led to this precipice. The Telegraph's Christopher Booker writes that the EU's plan all along was not democracy but rather technocracy. He writes
One of the few pleasures of watching this self-inflicted shambles unfolding day by day has been to see the panjandrums of the Today programme, James Naughtie and John Humphrys, at last beginning to ask whether the EU is a democratic institution. Had they studied the history of the object of their admiration, they might long ago have realised that the “European project” was never intended to be a democratic institution.
The idea first conceived back in the 1920s by two senior officials of the League of Nations – Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter, a British civil servant – was a United States of Europe, ruled by a government of unelected technocrats like themselves. Two things were anathema to them: nation states with the power of veto (which they had seen destroy the League of Nations) and any need to consult the wishes of the people in elections.
As Richard North and I showed in our book The Great Deception, this was the idea that Monnet put at the heart of the “project” from 1950 onwards, modelling his “government of Europe” on precisely the same four institutions that made up the League of Nations – a commission, a council of ministers, a parliament and a court. Thus, step by step over decades, Monnet’s technocratic dream has come to pass. 
Phillip Oltermann of The Guardian collects a good number of articles that point towards a technocracy model of governance in the EU.  

Another article comes from The Economist with the appropriate title, "Have PhD, will govern," touching on the appointment of academic economists in Italy and Greece and the shift in contemporary politics to think about new approaches to paralytic stalemates in national political systems. The articles goes on to talk about the unique nature of the "super committee" currently facing a looming deadline here in the United States. The author put it this way:
Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called “super committee” in the United States. Normally, all fiscal decisions are made by Congress, with the approval of the president. But by November 23rd, a special committee made up of three Democrats and three Republicans from each house of Congress, has to slice a mammoth $1.5 trillion off the budget deficit over ten years. Congress must then vote on whatever the super committee proposes—but may only accept or reject the plan as a whole. It may not amend the plan or vote on individual items, as is usual. And if Congress rejects the package, or the super-committee fails to come up with one, then the $1.5 trillion of cuts will be imposed automatically. American politicians, despairing of their inability to reduce the deficit in normal ways, have put a gun to their own heads. There have been partial precedents in American history but nothing quite like this.
In Europe, meanwhile, technocratic prime ministers are only the highest-ranking experts being recruited to help balance budgets and reform economies. Italy not only has an economics professor as prime minister (Mario Monti), it has also agreed that the IMF should scrutinise its reform programme. Greece has accepted that a troika of the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission (the European Union’s glorified civil service) should supervise its austerity measures. So have Ireland and Portugal. Spain is an especially revealing case. On the face of it, its democracy is working as usual. The country is due to hold an election on November 20th and, if the polls are correct, the conservative Popular Party will unseat the ruling Socialists. Yet at the same time, the current government has agreed upon a series of economic targets with the European Commission, and in practice the PP’s leader, Mariano Rajoy, will have to take these targets as a guide to policy, even if he dislikes them (which, admittedly, he doesn’t).
The political environment here in the United States, has seen a long-growing problem with the use of the filibuster (you can check out one article on this increase here). 
To quote from The Economist:
The special factor in America is the dysfunctionality of the political system. The past decade or so has seen a growing use of delaying tactics in Congress—such as the filibuster and so-called “hold” on appointments, so that decisions that were once largely formal or administrative have become mired in politicised controversy. This is the opposite of the problem in Europe, where the emergence of technocrats is supposed to make decision-making less partisan. But it is still a problem, as was seen in the disastrous wrangle over raising the national debt ceiling—an argument which ended in the downgrade of American sovereign debt. House Republicans have said they will not compromise with the president. But since the American political system requires a measure of compromise to work (and since the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives), parts of the legislative processes have almost seized up. This is likely to get worse during election year.
America and Europe share a common problem: the economic and financial crisis has discredited mainstream politicians. The right is popularly seen as the party of the rich, too close to unpopular bankers, and responsible for the financial deregulation of the 1980s which, on some accounts, was the source of all the trouble. But the left, which might have expected to have benefited from a capitalist meltdown, is no better off. Centre-left governments, at least in Britain and America, are also compromised by their earlier friendliness to finance and the left is seen as having been profligate, running up the debts that austerity is now needed to rein in. The result is that whereas in the early years of the crisis, the left was doing better in America and the right better in Europe (an echo of the 1930s), now there seems no pattern, except growing opposition to incumbents. 
This brief reference back to the 1930s is an important nod because technocracy and technocratic approaches to governance helped to shape much of the thinking during that period. John Jordan's Machine-Age Ideology provides a glimpse into that period. The positive view of technocracy faded in the United States, but, as Oltermann of The Guardian noted 
In many European countries, the word technocrat still has positive connotations. In the 1950s, Jean Monnet envisioned growth as something that required expertise rather than party politics. Smaller democracies, such as Holland, often rely on technocrats as negotiators between unruly coalition governments, or between employers and employees. Belgium, without a government for 17 months and counting,is a technocrat's paradise and has weathered the crisis fairly well so far. In the former communist states of central and eastern Europe, technocrats played a key role in negotiating the transition from authoritarian regime to democracy.
Today, we can see nations wrestling with daunting challenges. We are included in this list. But what are we to think of an embrace of "apolitical" political actors. I realize technocrats aren't popularly elected like our democratic leaders, but we would be wrong to think they exist outside of the political world in which they live and work. It seems to me that maybe we need to look at this issue in this way.

  1. We need to explain what we mean when we say "political" or "politicians." We are political animals, and I think we do a injustice to the term when we only use it as a derogatory term about elected officials. Being political can (and I would argue, should) be a positive characteristic of citizens.
  2. The role of the expert needs to be understood in a way that positions them as political actors in relationship with elected officials as well as ordinary citizens. There is a benefit to sidestepping the debacle that is the Congress, but democracy doesn't have to mean impasse or partisanship. 

These two points are not simple. Changing such large issues isn't even feasible. But if we just ignore them, then I would submit that we're only going to find ourselves facing issues much like we are today. And while we may think we're living through a very extreme time, I would venture a guess that having elected officials so closely aligned with bug business and big money will continue to block an honest discussion and debate about how we might, collectively, work through some of these very serious and pressing issues. There is a role for the citizen in all of this, as well as the elected official and the technocrat. Finding that balance, however, requires considerably more work. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Story of Broke

A helpful video highlighting some of what has brought us to point that today. As people go to vote on school levies that will provide desperate funds for schools, there's something vitally important about recognizing that we aren't out of funds: we (as a representative democracy) choose where to put our money. And as the video demonstrates, we've not always been the best at investing in things that will help us develop a better society.