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Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

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Roberts’s Pragmatism, Scalia’s Precedent

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has for the second time helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, again by seeing sensibly through to what the intent of the law is. Not persuaded by plaintiffs’ contention that the four words “established by the state” forbid the federal government from providing subsidies in states that do not have their own exchanges, he also noted the consequences of cutting subsidies for millions of people:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. … Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them … If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

Antonin Scalia again has put himself at the center of a decision with the petulant language he has chosen – this time precedent-setting – in siding with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the minority: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” he wrote, which apparently is the first time the term “SCOTUS” has appeared in a SCOTUS decision. There was also this: “The cases [concerning the ACA] will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.” Finally, Scalia departed from custom by concluding his dissent with a concise “I dissent,” forgoing the adverb that typically divides the declarative: “respectfully.” Though it could be argued his use of it in previous dissents may have implied its absence.

Stop the Glock

John Cassidy makes a good point on his New Yorker blog: 

"Evidently, the American political system still has the capacity to rouse itself and restrict the display of offensive flags. Unfortunately, doing anything about guns, which kill more than thirty thousand people a year in the U.S., is still beyond the nation."

Illusions Here and Abroad

Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

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Forgiveness & the Flag

Hearing the names of the nine victims in Charleston read at Mass on Sunday, it was hard not to hear as well the statements of forgiveness from their survivors made at last Friday’s bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you” – the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance – became the headline of Saturday’s print edition of The New York Times, but it’s the clips of Collier and others in court that truly convey the power of the moment, the grace of those whose loved ones were taken. It’s impossible not to be moved, or even awed—as a number of pundits admitted to being when the footage was aired.

Inevitably, much has been written and said about “forgiveness” in the days since, some of it by Cornell West. In an appearance Monday on New York public radio he called the survivors’ statements of forgiveness, and the favorable response to them, “bad theology.” The forgiveness, he said, “is premature… We have to put love at the center of this but forgiveness is something that comes further down the line… [This] has remnants of the niggerized Christianity that has been operating in the history of the black church….” Of course, provocation is West’s main mode. But his co-guest on the segment, Amy Butler of Riverside Church, allowed that he was getting at something important. The survivors’ words of forgiveness, she said, “are deeply moving but they call us to something deeper, and they remind us of a sin in our country that cannot be ignored anymore… [A] voice of remorse also needs to come from a system and a nation….”

The possibility of forgiveness from family members is one issue; the possibility (if not the likelihood) of its appropriation and use as absolution from any further responsibility for or concern with the underlying causes of the attack is another.

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Race of the absurd

The murders in Charleston have summoned all the cliches about race, racism, black, white, etc., that are part of summertime news. The parishioners at Emanuel AME Church mourn the people they knew and loved and their relatives and friends weep and forgive. The rest of us should be sorting through cause and effect. It might actually sober everyone up.

This morning's NYTimes looks at the organization that inspired Roof to murder and it looks at who is the beneficiary of its political contributions.

"What is Whitness" in the NYTimes Sunday Review reminded us that once upon a time scientists divined many more races, Celts, Saxons, Southern Italians, etc, than they divine today.

And we have had a couple go-rounds here at dotCommonweal about the social construction of race. When Did You Become White?     How White is White? And Who is White?

'Laudato Si' ': Response Roundup

Here’s a mid-day roundup of response to Laudato Si’ from around the web (if you've already made sure to read Anthony Annett, David Cloutier, Michael Peppard, and Massimo Faggioli on Commonweal). Start with E. J. Dionne Jr., who, in a column posted to our website, says anyone who claims Francis is inventing radical new doctrines

will have to reckon with the care he takes in paying homage to his predecessors, particularly Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. He cites them over and over on the limits of markets and the urgency of environmental stewardship. Laudato Si’ is thus thoroughly consistent with over a century of modern Catholic social teaching, and if it breaks new ground, it does so within the context of a long tradition -- going back to St. Francis himself.

Similarly, Emma Green in The Atlantic:

Historical references  …  are peppered throughout the document, and they serve as an important reminder to an often-giddy media that loves to write about today’s revolutionary pope: In the Church, precedent is everything. Francis’s argument is deeply grounded in Catholic teachings dating back to the late-19th-century writings of Pope Leo XIII (and before that, Jesus). … This is far from the Church’s first foray into environmentalism. “I always remind my environmental friends that St. Francis was ours before he was theirs,” said John Carr, a professor at Georgetown and former staffer at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This didn’t begin with Earth Day or Al Gore. It began with Genesis.”

R. R. Reno at First Things:

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era. … Francis has penned a cri de coeur, a dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy. The only answer is repentance, “deep change,” and a “bold cultural revolution.” If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity.

But Josiah Neely, also at First Things, calls Laudato Si' “a more measured affair” that deserves fuller reading: “[T]here seems to be a fairly large disconnect between the criticism of (much of it made prior to the release of the actual text) and the encyclical itself.”

Francis X. Rocca in the Wall St. Journal zeroes in on “passionate language likely to prove highly divisive” and characterizes Laudato Si’ as abroad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy.” 

What, George Weigel asks, does Francis write in the encyclical?

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Laudato Si' Press Conference: Twitter Roundup

This morning Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' was released and presented by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace.” Alongside Turkson were other presenters: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church; Professor John Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Institute for Climate Impact in Potsdam; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher from Rome. The following is some selected Twitter coverage of the event as it happened.

The conference begins:

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Whose Legacy?

The word "legacy" appears frequently in stories about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). And almost without exception it refers to President Obama's legacy.

The defeat last week in the House of a piece of the agreement has been taken as a major defeat for the president, and what's more, at the hands of his fellow Democrats. No doubt, the whole thing will circle around again, and those now on record against the agreement can then vote, yes.

But why would it be singled out as Obama's legacy. We could say that the legacy of NAFTA lives on in the lives of those who lost or never found good jobs over the last two decades, and not in the life of Bill Clinton who signed it. Presumably the major legacy of TPP will be more disruption in job formation, both here and in the "trans-Pacific." Labor and environmental regulations are weak and the ability of a few to make lots of money is strong. Why would any president want that for his legacy?

Bishop Sanchez Sorondo responds to criticism

I recently posted a response by Margaret Archer—president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—to an attack essay by Stefano Gennarini in First Things. This essay accused the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, of openly defying the position of the Holy See on “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights.”

The good bishop has now published his own response, and it is detailed, thoughtful, and gracious. I invite you to read it without my editorial comment.

But I want to step back and think about this for a minute. We had an event at the Vatican that focused mainly on climate change and how it hurts the world’s poorest people. But instead of engaging on this vitally important point, agitators like Gennarini turn the debate back to abortion. And pretty soon, that’s all everyone is talking about. He has forced an upstanding Catholic bishop to go on record stating that he is in fact opposed to abortion!

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a tried-and-true tactic. But we shouldn’t play into their hands.  We need to put these people back on the defensive. The pro-life position can never be limited to abortion. It must encompass all forms of the “throwaway” culture that Pope Francis mentions so often, all ways that life and dignity are degraded and cheapened. It must encompass the issues that the Pontifical Academy is passionate about, including human trafficking and modern forms of slavery. And it certainly must encompass the need to reduce carbon emissions, given that our “business as usual” trajectory is going to prove catastrophic for human life and health, especially for the poor and the unborn.

So let the response to such provocation be: “I oppose abortion, but do you oppose decarbonization”? I would like to hear an answer to that question from Stefano Gennarini, George Weigel, Robbie George, Raymond Arroyo, Bill Donohue and all others who seek to downplay and dismiss these concerns.

I would argue that, from a moral perspective, opposing decarbonization is not that different from supporting legalized abortion—you might not be the acting moral agent, but you are still complicit in the structures of sin. Putting it another way, it might not be formal cooperation with evil, but it is certainly material.

And sin is the right word. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been saying this for a long time—degrading the earth, including by changing the climate, is a sin. Pope Francis has used similar words in the past. And given the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s representative at the launch of the encyclical next week, what’s the betting that this theme will feature prominently?

Kalief Browder's Stolen Life

As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two. 

Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.

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Mailer, Buckley & My Alma Mater

I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.

Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.

When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.

Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.

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Margaret Archer speaks out

Catholics who oppose the pending papal encyclical on the environment, and the sustainable development agenda more generally, understand that simply resorting to junk science is not going to cut it. So they also resort to the oldest trick in the book: raising the specter of abortion to mask their determined opposition to core aspects of Catholic social teaching. They seek a “gotcha” moment – if some of the people who lead sustainable development efforts either support abortion or have made ambiguous statements about it in the past, then we should shun them. And of course, jettison the whole sustainable development agenda with it.

But this is smoke and mirrors. As I’ve noted before, the real issue is decarbonization, not depopulation.  Yet this tactic is worked so many times before. But not this time. This time, they messed with the wrong woman – Margaret Archer, world-renowned social theorist and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In the context of an all-too-typical hit piece from First Things, she issued a defiant response. She asks a sequence of questions, starting with this one:

Is your sole concern with human dignity confined to the period between conception and live-birth? If so, this is a travesty of Catholic Social Teaching, whose concern is not confined to the newborn but extends to the development of all those potentialities and powers that exist only in potentia at birth (such as walking and talking) that develop or can be irreparably damaged throughout life.”

Precisely. She goes on to talk about all the good work the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences has been doing on human trafficking and modern forms of slavery, and how they completely ignore that. She mocks them for being “climate change deniers” and for their flirtation with junk science. She points out that climate change affects the life and dignity of the poorest, making it a pressing concern for pro-lifers. She mocks them for singling out Ban Ki Moon, noting that the pope had a private audience with him. She asks:

“Do you really have a higher moral standard than the Pope? Or is your own minimalistic version of the Creed, consisting of the single item: ‘’We believe in the ethical depravity of abortion’ considered to be an improvement?”

And then there’s the real kicker:

“I am appointed by the Pope and responsible directly to him. I’m afraid that leaves you and your cohort out in the cold. Moreover, we work pro bono and are therefore are self-supporting, which makes me wonder which lobbyists meet your salary bill?”

Bravo! It’s time for all Catholics – for all people of good will – to speak out as strongly as Margaret Archer on these issues, and reclaim Catholic Social Teaching from those who have spent decades hijacking it. And let’s start with EWTN, where Raymond Arroyo has unleashed a campaign to undermine the encyclical (even before it is written), even giving a platform to the junk scientists in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. When Arroyo shamefully defended torture during the Bush years, very few spoke out against him. May this time be different. 

Why not? Update

As the congratulatory telegrams continue for Ireland's referendum last Sunday approving gay marriage and as we await the Supreme Court's decision on the issue of a constitutional right for gay marriage, we might consider some of the points Ross Douthat makes in today's column in the New York Times. It is headlined: "The Prospect for Polygamy."

Douthat grants that the issue of polygamy in the U.S. is an "outlier" among social issues, and it does seem far-fetched. Yet, it is worth thinking about his ultimate point: not today and not next year, but maybe 2040. And why not? What would keep the Supreme Court and public opinion from deciding there are no constitutional or moral bars to multi-person marriages?

UPDATE: The Gallup poll that Douthat references.

The Enduring George Weigel Problem

George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.

Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.

And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel.  In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.

Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.

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Those Who Want Housing, and Those Who Need It

In London it’s become the fashion of wealthy homebuyers to supplement already sizable residences with cavernous subterranean lairs. In Manhattan it’s to move into a sky-high aerie, priced in the tens of millions, from which it’s possible to look down on the Empire State Building. In the Bay Area it’s to snap up anything inside the city limits of San Francisco, the near entirety of which has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley’s most monied.

Wealth has always shaped cities, but its current role in the transformation of urban centers around the world seems unprecedented, probably because there’s so much more of it, concentrated in ever-fewer hands, moving ever more fluidly and mysteriously through lightly regulated and technologically enhanced channels. Oligarch, plutocrat, or ordinary multimillionaire, the highest-net-worth property-seekers want to be in cities, or if nothing else be able to park their money in one (real estate being a good place to hide it). It may be a cliche to talk about the divide between rich and poor in places like London, New York, and San Francisco, but some cliches bear restating, especially when the divide seems increasingly inconceivable in its breadth -- the very function of a system engineered to practically ensure its further expansion. “Darwinian upscale urbanism,” as Martin Filler termed it in the New York Review of Books in April, referring specifically to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city he ran -- a place where the wealth of wealthy property owners was to trickle down to residents but instead, a researcher found, had “deleterious effects... on small business, the middle class, and taxpayers.”

It may not be easy to dig an enormous basement or live in a condo eighteen-hundred feet above street-level, but it would be even harder if there were not banks, developers, lawyers, real-estate firms, contractors, and politicians dedicated to making it possible.

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Student debt comes home

The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion, four times the amount it was in 2004. For the Millennial generation who stepped into the job market mid-recession, these sobering numbers probably aren't surprising.

Last year, a branch of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt, bought and forgave almost four million in student loans held by students from Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profit college chains, which recently closed its doors without warning and filed for bankruptcy. The company was under scrutiny for over-charging students for poor-quality classes and misrepresenting its job placement rate, and by shutting down, it left many students without degrees but deeper in dept. Now that Corinthian’s unethical practices have been laid bare, Tuesday’s petition asking the Department of Education to cancel debt owed to colleges violating state law is one good step, but the legal case is complicated.

Proposals for addressing the crisis of student debt range from the relatively modest (easing the requirements for debt forgiveness in cases of fraud found in Obama’s proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights), to the sweeping, as Bernie Sanders’s proposal to address the root cause of student debt by making college tuition-free. Regardless, some kind of action is needed.

The more burdensome a college graduate’s debt obligation, the more difficult it is to establish a path toward economic security – building savings, for example, or buying a house – and to enter stabilizing relationships or start a family. Student debt also affects the well-being of the previous generation, as parents rally to help their children, sometimes by tapping into their home’s equity or retirement savings. And, when the time comes, who are they supposed to sell their homes to when an entire generation of graduates is too constrained by debt to buy? There are also new numbers on how rising tuition and student debt disproportionately hurts minorities. Hollis Phelps in Commonweal last year addressed this very topic: “In a cruel twist, the very means undertaken by my students to get themselves out of poverty threaten to continue that poverty through the debt that they now owe.” What might have once seemed like a young-person’s problem (and perhaps a privileged young-person’s problem) is now more widely felt.

We should understand the student debt crisis alongside the seriously weakened prospects for job growth that early Millennials faced upon graduation. As the first Millennial wave graduated, job definitions were changing as industries shifted and automation spread, and thanks to the recession, even the jobs that were supposed to be there as entrees to the middle-class were gone, or greatly diminished. Companies relied increasingly on contract labor to defray costs, including adjunct positions at universities (which didn’t help the students who went to graduate school hoping to ride out the economic downturn). All this meant that the “foot in the door” college was expected to provide meant something very different than it used to. If you could get an entry-level position, advancement in the same workplace over a long period of time was no longer a solid prospect. And as many discovered, an unpaid internship began to increasingly qualify you for… a different internship—a point that has even made its way into Hillary Clinton’s speeches (though apparently her foundation's policies don't necessarily reflect that concern).

Despite the occasional accusation of generational flightiness, which ignores these economic factors, Millennials say they want to make the same things happen as their parents did: a home, a stable partnership, and enough stability to raise kids. Policy changes will have to span the sprawling and slow-moving institutions of federal government, banks, and universities. But changes are slowly coming. In some states, companies that relied on unpaid internships to fill staff roles face greater restrictions. The complaints from Occupy Wall Street’s corridors about debt once sounded less urgent and pressing to the mainstream. Millennials faced a lack of institutional support to build a solid foundation, and now the problem is coming home.

Abusing immigrants, something for everyone

We had a go around last week about nail salons (and I have been chided for treating it as another NYTimes hand-wringer). Okay. Sorry to scandalize the sensitive!

I pointed out in a comment on that post that our Immigration Law Imbroglio has a lot to do with the nail scandal as well as many other ongoing industrial/commercial abuses, such as restaurants, gas stations, street repairs, etc. Thanks to Republicans our laws have not been updated; thanks to Obama the laws, such as we have, are not being enforced; thanks to the economy of low-wage jobs, ever more immigrants will come by hook or crook and be abused, many of them by their own countrymen/women and by our failure to enforce the laws that should protect them as well as our very own low-wage workers.

Jim Dwyer (no hand-wringer) has a short piece not only about workers beings abused everywhere in NYC, but about the general failure of city and state to enforce the laws that should be protecting these workers, legal or not.

Welcome and Unexpected News

The Vatican has completed a treaty in which it will recognize the State of Palestine; details to come.

The Vatican statement:  very brief.  If Francis does nothing else, this should be celebrated in helping to bring an end to the Israeli Occupation.

Will it encourage other nations to do the same? Probably not our own:

On "May 8 Obama told several of his interlocutors that he had decided, despite it all, to cast a veto on the French proposal regarding the Middle East conflict (for a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood), if and when it comes to a discussion and vote in the UN Security Council. This is despite recent assessments that the Americans had decided not to cast such a veto."  Al Monitor  (This report by an Israeli journalist is quite good on the dysfuntional U.S.-Israeli relationship.)

Could Obama use Francis for cover? Or will the U.S. become the outlier nation as others recognize Palestine?

Putnam and Poverty, Part 1

It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.

Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).

The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.

Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.

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