Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Praying With Women

What is the worst offense that a religious person can commit? Murder? Rape? Grand theft auto? Nope. According to Catholic Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, the worst thing a Catholic can do is attend a worship service led by a woman.

As Caryn Riswold wrote two weeks ago, Bishop Paprocki has threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who attends a worship service of the Holy Family Inclusive Catholic Community, led by Rev. Mary Keldermans. She was recently ordained as part of the international Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement. One does not have to participate actively in this heretical worship to incur this extreme penalty: attendance alone is sufficient.

The Catholic Church does not automatically excommunicate murderers or rapists or other criminals. That punishment, the worst which the Church can impose, means the offender is excluded from the religious community and may not take communion. It is reserved for the worst offenders – those who pray the wrong way.

Organized and institutional religions all regard praying the wrong way as a capital offense. Deadly religious wars within a faith have a long history. The efforts of a few Christians, like Martin Luther, to reform some of the beliefs and practices of the organized Church in Europe in the 16th century touched off centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants.

The schism within the Russian Orthodox Church a bit later developed out of an argument about the proper way to make the sign of the cross, among other similar questions about daily ritual practice. The result was centuries of persecution and exile for those so-called Old Believers, who refused to change their ways.

Jews have done the same thing, although with less violence. Some German Jews tried to bring changes to worship practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as translating prayers from Hebrew into German. That caused a split among European Jews into Orthodox and Reform wings. Orthodox Jews continue to control religious observance in Israel, and do not consider reform Jews to be sufficiently Jewish.

The deadly rampages of Muslims in Iraq against other Muslims who worship in a different way, Sunnis vs. Shiites, are making headlines again. Boko Haram terrorists are killing other Muslims in Nigeria.

Murderous hatred between different religions is even greater. Across the world and across the centuries, Christians have killed Jews and Muslims, while Muslims and Hindus have fought in southern Asia. In and around Israel, being Muslim or Jewish is enough to condemn a person to death by the other side. Radical Muslims have declared holy war, jihad, against Westerners.

So Bishop Paprocki is following a long tradition. His anger has been provoked by a very modern issue which divides religious traditionalists of many faiths from reformers – the role of women. When the world’s major religions were institutionalized, human societies subordinated women and excluded them from all leadership positions. Theories and practices were developed to justify women’s unequal place, such as that women represented sexual temptation or that menstruation made them unclean or that they were biologically and intellectually inferior. Over the past two centuries, these social assumptions have been demonstrated to be unscientific and illogical. As our social and political organizations have slowly and certainly reluctantly adapted to this revolution in gender understanding, so have some religious organizations. In many faiths, women now play roles once reserved exclusively for men. The theological dogmas which seemed unchangeable have changed.

Catholicism has changed, too. Until the Holocaust, Catholic dogma considered Jews as Christ-killers, although most Catholics were able to treat Jews as fellow humans, rather than religious scapegoats. Since the Holocaust, Catholic teachings about Jews have changed. That will happen about women, too, perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually. Reform will be fought by extreme traditionalists, who will use all the weapons at their disposal, including excommunication.

So go ahead – kill your neighbor. You may have to pay an earthly penalty, but eternal salvation can still be achieved. But don’t walk into the wrong church, especially if you see a woman in the pulpit. Then the wrath of the organized church or mosque or temple will be visited upon you.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 29, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia Has Lost Ukraine

Not long ago, Republicans were openly critical of President Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine. Their argument was that Obama was projecting weakness by not responding more forcefully, presumably with some military force. Former VP Dick Cheney urged “military options”, and Senator Ted Cruz spoke of coddling and appeasing our enemies. In March, Senator John McCain said our foreign policy was “feckless”. Senator Lindsey Graham called Obama “a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression”. In May, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn urged giving weapons to Ukraine’s military, as had McCain earlier.

A repeated Republican theme was how Russian leader Vladimir Putin was superior to Obama. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in March, “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” One month ago, the National Review said Putin was winning in Ukraine, calling his policy there a “masterpiece”. Republicans seemed almost gleeful in their claims that the Russian aggressors were winning, perhaps because they identified with Putin, both having Obama as a common enemy.

How different things look now. Three weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko signed the trade agreement with the European Union that was the cause of the revolution which brought him to power. When his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, refused in November to sign that pact, bowing to heavy pressure from Putin, months of protests in Kiev led to the current crisis. Yanukovych fled, a new Ukrainian government was formed, and pro-Russian separatists revolted in the east.

Poroshenko’s movement back toward the EU and away from Russia is precisely what Putin, in his heavy-handed way, was trying to prevent. Moldova and Georgia, former Soviet territories that Putin has been trying to keep in a Russian orbit, also signed agreements with the EU. Poroshenko said that Ukraine would eventually become part of the EU.

Then Ukrainian forces, without American weapons, began to show some muscle. Since its creation as an independent country in 1991, Ukraine has engaged in zero military actions. It is not surprising that the Ukrainian military initially seemed unprepared to face Russian-equipped separatists led by Russian infiltrators, backed up by the threat of a Russian invasion. But two weeks ago, the separatists were driven out of a stronghold in Slavyansk by the newly muscular Ukrainian military. As they retreated to Donetsk, they blew up bridges behind them to slow down their pursuers. You can see this on YouTube. That’s a sure sign of desperation, likely to anger the local population who care about the continued functioning of their economy.

These were major setbacks for Russia, but not as serious as the latest crisis. Using Russian weapons, the separatists shot down a Malaysian passenger plane, killing 298 people, mostly Dutch citizens. Right now the shouts of “You did it,” and “No, we didn’t,” are flying back and forth, but the eventual outcome is already clear.

Unwilling to give up their anti-Obama preaching, some Republicans continue to blame him for everything. Those efforts begin at the absurd: Allen West’s rant that “298 souls on MH17 have paid the price for Obama’s ‘flexibility’”. But more mainstream Republicans kept repeating their criticisms of Obama, rather than recognizing how this incident shifts the Ukrainian situation.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered the fullest indictment of Russian complicity: “We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they’ve gained by training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems.” Evidence shows that Russia recently delivered the missiles across the border. The Ukrainian government released recordings of the separatists telephoning Russia about shooting down the plane and a video showing the missile unit returning to Russia after the plane crashed.

Putin will be playing defense for the foreseeable future. The EU, Russia’s biggest trading partner, has thus far been reluctant to follow President Obama’s lead in imposing economic sanctions. Now Germany, England and France have agreed to take a stronger stance against Russia.

It turns out that Ukraine’s military is able to push the separatists out without the provocative addition of American weapons or soldiers. It turns out that the separatists’ initial popularity in east Ukraine is not likely to last. It turns out that Obama’s patience beats Putin’s aggression. It turns out that Republicans anxious to score partisan points against the President, the same Republicans who cheered President Bush on when he invaded Iraq, offer only dangerous foreign policy ideas.

It turns out that letting the Ukrainians deal with their own crisis was the best idea of all.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 22, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let’s Cut Our Taxes

Many Americans would like to pay less in taxes. That desire is a major motivating force behind the Tea Party revolt at the right end of the political spectrum. But I’m sure many liberals would also like to have their tax burden reduced. In the interest of bringing these two sides of our partisan political debates closer together, I propose that everybody get behind the following three ways to reduce the tax burdens of most Americans.

1. Do a better job of collecting the taxes that Americans owe. Every year about $385 billion in tax revenues are not paid. During fiscal year 2013, the US government collected $2.77 trillion in tax revenues, meaning that about 12% of what should have been collected wasn’t. Those uncollected taxes would considerably reduce the budget deficit and the resulting federal debt.

Who doesn’t pay their taxes? Most Americans would be easily caught if we cheated: our income is reported by employers on W-2's. Joe Antenucci, professor of accounting and finance at Youngstown State University, offers this profile of the typical tax cheat: “male, under age 50 in a high tax bracket with a complex return.” The most common method of cheating is to overstate church donations. But the most profitable methods involve hiding big incomes illegally. This year, Swiss bank Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to helping wealthy Americans hide billions of dollars from US tax collectors in foreign bank accounts, and will pay $2.6 billion in fines. Such methods are only open to the wealthiest Americans.

How can we stop such cheating, increase legal tax collections, and reduce the burden on the rest of us? Not by decreasing the enforcement budget of the IRS. Cuts in the IRS budget demanded by Congressional Republicans have reduced its staff by about 8000 people over the past four years, and thus reduced its ability to catch cheaters. As the IRS budget has dropped, so have the number of audits. I have read many different estimates of how much new revenue each additional dollar invested in IRS enforcement brings, ranging from $4 to $10. But it’s clear that increasing the IRS enforcement budget decreases the deficit and thus could contribute to lowering our tax rates.

2. Reduce some tax loopholes. There is always discussion about “tax loopholes”, legal ways that people avoid paying taxes. Congressional Republicans have recently talked about ending the loophole that allows homeowners to deduct mortgage interest. That would significantly increase the taxes paid by most middle-class Americans. But they haven’t talked about ending some amazing loopholes that benefit only the very wealthy. For example, in 1993 Congress passed legislation designed to prevent corporations from deducting giant salaries for their executives as expenses. But a loophole in the law exempted so-called “performance pay”, including stock options. Over the past 6 years, Walmart has claimed a deduction for $298 million in “performance pay” for its eight top executives, reducing its tax burden by $104 million. Multiply that by all the giant corporations that employ this loophole, and the result is a lot of money that must be made up by the rest of us.

Here’s another loophole. The biggest American pharmacy chain, Walgreens, is considering becoming the biggest Swiss pharmacy. If Walgreens, currently located in Illinois, reincorporates in Switzerland, its tax rate would be considerably reduced. In 2012, Illinois gave Walgreens $46 million in corporate income tax credits in exchange for a pledge to stay here for 10 years. Walgreens may not make the jump, but many other big US corporations have “moved” to tax havens like Switzerland and Ireland. Profits from American consumers end up as taxes elsewhere.

3. Make all income equal. Unlike the great majority of ordinary taxpayers, people whose income consists mainly of capital gains pay a much lower tax rate. Capital gains are taxed at 15%, or 20% for those who make above $400,000, while their rate for other income is 39.6%. In 2011 it was reported that billionaire Warren Buffett paid the lowest tax rate of anyone in his office, including his receptionist. Nearly all of the capital gains tax benefit goes to people with annual incomes over $1 million. Here’s the result: in 2007, the richest 400 households by income, who each made over $340 million that year, paid the same tax rate as those earning $50,000 to $75,000. The annual cost in tax revenues is about $40 billion.

We could have the same governmental services that we have now and pay less taxes if just these three changes were implemented. Or we could have somewhat more services (like better roads), and still pay less. We might feel better, too, because all Americans would be treated more equally.

What’s in the way? Each of these changes would benefit only 90% or 95% or 99% of Americans. The extra revenue from catching tax cheaters, from closing those loopholes, and from treating all income equally would mostly come from the richest 1%. They are a tiny minority, but they have the greatest influence. Their fellow millionaires in the Senate and the House are easily persuaded by the trickle-down economic theories which defend these tax breaks. Their personal connections to Congress through big donations and their lobbying groups magnify their voices. That’s not going to change unless the rest of us speak louder.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 15, 2014