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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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Catch E.J. Dionne and Barack Obama

Online at the Georgetown Catholic-Evangelical Conference on Poverty....

There's a tab at the upper left of the screen to watch the whole discussion, which begins at about five minutes. Catch it.

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

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Bagels, doughnuts, and scones

If Mike Huckabee violated campaign finance laws, would anyone take note? And who would do anything about it?

The answer to the first question is yes: As reported in The Washington Post, the Campaign Legal Center has called out Huckabee on the first day of his presidential candidacy for a remark he made during his announcement speech: “I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people who will find out that $15- and $25-a-month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground… . Now, rest assured [he said to laughter], if you want to give a million dollars, please do it.” According to the center, that’s a violation, joke or not, since candidates for federal office can solicit amounts no larger than $5,000. And if he was suggesting that people direct their donations to a Super PAC, that would also have been a violation: Super PACs are independent of candidates, and fundraising for them must stop once a potential candidate becomes an announced one. Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Martin O’Malley are two presumed presidential candidates whose Super PACs continue to raise money while they linger on the sidelines, which is precisely (some say) why they continue to linger on the sidelines.

A million here, a million there—once it might have soon begun to add up. Yet with the Koch brothers pledging to funnel close to $900 million into the 2016 election (having already amassed $250 million at an event earlier this year), notions of what constitutes “real money” might need to be reconsidered. Huckabee’s modest request could cause him some trouble, assuming there was a bipartisan body set up to monitor and enforce such things. If you said that’s what the Federal Election Commission was for, you wouldn’t be incorrect, but you’d be overstating its ability to do so, and maybe even its interest in doing so. As reported this past weekend, the FEC is effectively neutered, its three Republican and three Democratic members in a “perpetual deadlock.” The FEC chairwoman bluntly states that the likelihood of enforcing campaign finance regulations in the 2016 presidential election is “slim” – this when about $10 billion in total spending is expected, an amount loosed in large part via the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Democrats on the commission want more oversight on just where the money is coming from; Republicans say there's nothing to see here. Where members did manage to compromise was on what would be served to eat at a recent event commemorating the FEC’s fortieth anniversary: one side wanted bagels, the other doughnuts, so they settled on both.

It’s campaign season in the United Kingdom as well, where rules are somewhat more stringent: No party can spend more than about $30 million in the year ahead of the election. In the last cycle, the Conservatives spent $25 million and Labour less than half that. The Center for Responsive Politics says American presidential candidates spent about as much money on raising money in 2012 as the two main British parties spent on their entire campaigns in 2010. There is no TV or radio advertising in British elections (though spending on digital ads is rising). Even then, parties and candidates tend to have money left over. Maybe enough for scones? 

Sustainable development is about decarbonization, not depopulation

Last week, I wrote about the major Vatican symposium on climate change and sustainable development. In that post, I wrote about the unfortunate journalistic tendency to give equal weight to the world-renowned climate scientists in the hall, and the rag-taggle bunch of climate change denialists from the Heartland Institute shaking their fists outside.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

In his most recent column, John Allen does the same. He notes that the Heartland people were “pointedly not invited inside the Vatican and UN conference”. Well, of course not. I don’t think the people who believe the moon landings were faked get invited to NASA gatherings either! It’s a peculiar quirk of American journalism to give credence to what is essentially quackery in this area.

But Allen then goes one step further. He talks to an Italian activist called Cascioli – seemingly his sole source for this story – who assures him that “environmentalism and population control are intrinsically linked”.

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Thank you, Freddie Gray

CNS photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, Reuters

Thank you, Freddie Gray.

You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.

Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.

Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.

And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.

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Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."


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Report on Vatican climate change symposium

This past Tuesday, I had the great joy and privilege of attending a Vatican symposium entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignity Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. Three separate groups sponsored this gathering: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/ Social Sciences, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (housed at Columbia University’s Earth Institute) and Religions for Peace. It brought together a who’s-who of top climate scientists, development experts, as well religious leaders from the world’s major traditions - Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh. There were also some business leaders present, plus two heads of state (President Mattarella of Italy and President Correa of Ecuador). And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the symposium, fresh from his bilateral meeting earlier that morning with Pope Francis.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

The purpose of this unique summit was to build momentum ahead of the pope’s much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, to focus squarely on the moral dimensions of climate change and sustainable development – especially through its effect on the poor. It was remarkable and inspiring to see top scientists and top religious leaders singing from the same songbook – the religions affirmed the science, and the scientists affirmed the moral dimension of the problem. As Ban Ki-moon said in his speech, “there is no divide whatsoever between religion and science on the issue of climate change”.

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More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Hebdo & PEN, the Archbishop & the Quran

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz said this week he will stop inking images of the prophet Muhammad, explaining that it no longer interests him: “I got tired of it, just like I got tired of drawing Sarkozy.” His announcement comes as France also follows the case of Sarah K., the fifteen-year-old student sent home for wearing a long skirt her principal deemed an “ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith – an action the Collective Against Islamophobia in France called “really an excessive interpretation” of the 2004 law prohibiting students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school.

Meanwhile, the public spat among authors continues ahead of next week’s PEN gala in New York, where Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award “for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.” Six writers scheduled as table hosts announced over the weekend they would not attend the event, including Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center. About two dozen more writers (including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz) have since added their names as signatories to a public letter of protest over the award: “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression,” reads the letter, “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.” Prose and the five others who first withdrew have come under fire from, among others, Salman Rushdie -- who has called them “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (He used some other choice words too.) To which Prose has responded:

Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? … [We] stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence. … But the giving of an award suggests that one admires and respects the value of the work being honored, responses quite difficult to summon for the work of Charlie Hebdo. Provocation is simply not the same as heroism.

There’s a more irenic exchange going on at John Carroll University, as can be heard in a segment from today’s NPR Morning Edition on retired archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam currently teaching a class on the Quran.

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Hillary Clinton on religious beliefs

During her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton talked a great deal about religion. At one point, she and Barack Obama faced off in a “Compassion Forum” in which they were interviewed about their beliefs.  Clinton used the occasion to continue assailing Obama for his quote that some embittered Americans "cling to guns or religion": 

… from my perspective, the characterization of people in a way that really seemed to be elitist and out of touch is something that we have to overcome.

You know, the Democratic Party, to be very blunt about it, has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of so many of our fellow Americans.

And I think it's important that we make clear that we believe people are people of faith because it is part of their whole being; it is what gives them meaning in life, through good times and bad times. It is there as a spur, an anchor, to center one in the storms, but also to guide one forward in the day-to-day living that is part of everyone's journey.

Contrast that to the speech Clinton gave last Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York:

Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.

That last sentence was an applause line, as you can see from the video (at 8:55). The italics are mine, but they reflect the emphasis Clinton put on these words through a change in tone, cadence and gesture.

The remark can be decoded in a variety of ways, but a reasonable reading is that Clinton called for efforts to change religious beliefs that oppose abortion. (I directed an email to the campaign press operation to ask if this was so, but received no response.)


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The Cradle of Civilization!! Going, going....

Didn't Christopher Dawson--or someone, maybe Nietzsche?--trace the excellence and superiority of the West back to the Greeks? Now this: "The Greeks are not Western."

"The imperial giant driving a wedge through European unity and the tiny state drowning in debt are locked in a controversial canoodle. Call it an Orthodox big wet kiss, but modern ties between Greece and Russia are cementing ancient ones."

Clinching argument: Greece became independent of the Ottoman Empire only in 1830.  Would this make the U.S. the cradle of civilization? May Zeus forefend.


Your Congress at work for the West Bank Settlements

As the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" makes its way through the U.S. Congress, the trade agreement (with Pacific and Asian countries) is being amended to penalize BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) efforts against the West Bank Settlements.

The amendments from House and Senate committees "require U.S. trade negotiators to 'discourage politically motivated actions' by foreign countries and international organizations that aim to 'penalize or otherwise limit' commercial relations with Israel or 'persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel."

"Territories under the control of Israel," of course, refers to the occupied land beyond Israel's 1967 borders. The measures are directed primarily at European countries and businesses who are increasingly opposed to the West Bank Settlements and to Israel's refusal to recognize a Palestinian state. The Occupation of the West Bank is against international law. If passed, these amendments would contervene long-standing U.S. policy opposing the Settlements.

Recall that the BDS movements was started as a non-military, non-violent protest against Israel's Occupation of Palestinian Territory. The movement has garnered more sympathy in Europe than in the U.S.; but even in Europe little has come of it.

How exactly is the U.S. Congress empowered to limit the free speech and political decisions of European countries? Why not ask your Senator or Representative?

J.J. Goldberg of The Forward has the story and the language of the amendments.

House Bill.  AIPAC Press Release: House Fast Track Bill Targets Economic Attacks against Israel.

Transcending polarization

What can be done about polarization in the American Catholic Church? A conference next week at the University of Notre Dame aims to address the causes of polarization and advance ideas for healing some its wounds.

Monday night’s opening panel will be live-streamed here, with contributions from Most Rev. Daniel Flores (Bishop of Brownsville), Rev. John Jenkins, CSC (President, Notre Dame), Prof. Julie Hanlon Rubio (theology, St. Louis Univ.), Prof. Christian Smith (sociology, Notre Dame), and Michael Sean Winters (journalist for The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter).

This will be followed by Tuesday sessions and working groups. I’ll be part of a group proposing constructive actions that can be taken to heal divisions in the church. In preparing for that, I’ve been working through some of the causes of political polarization in the United States, to see which of these might have explanatory power for polarization in the church.

Political scientists agree that the United States has become increasingly polarized over the past forty years. Analyzing the possible causes has become a hot topic for peer-reviewed scholarship, op-ed pages, and blogs. (Some recent round-ups of scholarship can be found here and here.)  Was polarization catalyzed by Roe v. Wade? Or Bush v. Gore? Or the partisan onslaught of 24-hour cable news? In any case, it’s hard to remember the map before it showed red and blue states.

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Class warfare or 'gambling society'?

For four out of five Americans, earnings from capital gains amount to well under 1 percent of annual income.  For the richest one percent, on the other hand, these gains from investments amount to over a third of their income and for the top tenth of that one percent, about half their income.  No surprise, then, that these gains are taxed at much lower rates than ordinary wages.  And no surprise that questions have been raised about the wisdom and justice of that differential. 

When liberal politicians raise those questions, they are of course waging class warfare.  When Laurence D. Fink raises them, he is, well, he is Chairman of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, overseeing something approaching $5 trillion of investments.

Last week Mr. Fink sent a letter to the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies.  His basic point was that instead of using corporate earnings to build up productive capacities—like “innovation, skilled work forces, or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth,” he wrote—too many corporate leaders were buying back stock and paying out dividends, even with borrowed money, to please shareholders and aggressive investors with quick returns.

A major incentive for this short-term outlook, Mr. Fink argued, is the capital gains tax advantage. 

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'The Pope and Mussolini' Has Won the Putlizer

David Kertzer's biography The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe was awarded a Putlizer Prize earlier this week. Kertzer was able to write it because of the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy. The complex details of the seven years it took Pius and Mussolini to negotiate two agreements--a political treaty that recognized the pope’s sovereignty over Vatican City and a concordat that regulated the church’s position in the Italian state--is the subject of this book, told through vivid biographical sketches of Pius and Mussolini's personal lives leading up to their positions of power, and how these personalities both clashed and compromised:

With strong opinions and an increasingly authoritarian manner, the pope shared the fascists’ opposition to communism even as he continued to distrust their sincerity and press for greater influence over Italian society.

If you're thinking of reading it, James Sheehan wrote a great review for us last September.

The Pope on Earth Day

Zenit reports on the pope’s earth day message:

“I exhort everyone to see the world through the eyes of God the Creator," the Pope said, namely that "the earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden be cultivated.”

“The relationship of mankind with nature," the Jesuit Pope stated, "must not be conducted with greed, manipulation and exploitation." Rather, he said, "it must conserve the divine harmony that exists between creatures and Creation within the logic of respect and care."

It is interesting to juxtapose this with recent conservative worries about the upcoming encyclical. As rendered by the Action Institute’s blog, the main issues are (a) the climate is always changing, so we shouldn’t be too hasty in saying we have a problem, (b) international government action is the wrong way to go about acting, (c) materialism is a “cultural” problem, but not a problem with the free capitalist economy itself.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

The pope’s brief message is a clear response to these points. First, the pope seems clear that the beginning of any solution must be to acknowledge the problem. Words like respect, care, protection, and harmony are not the words that spring to mind in characterizing present practice. Would Mr. Jayabalan argue that in fact we are exercising these things? Second, the environment is the quintessential common good; it is inherently something that is shared. For a long time, strongly free market economists have tried to argue that even problems of pollution can be solved by market transactions; but the language of protection signals that there is no way for the environment itself (nor for future generations) to be a part of the contractual transaction. Shared action is necessary, and it should be on the appropriate scale. The appropriate scale for the atmospheric issues involved in climate change is the global one. Third, “greed, manipulation, and exploitation” may not be inherent properties of markets, but they are all too often systemic problems in our present form of globalized markets. I am the first to say that personal virtue is absolutely necessary to address environmental problems, and Americans should be first in line in renewing practices of restraint, of minimizing waste, and the like. But let’s not pretend that our present system is somehow neutral: consumer capitalism thrives on a lack of restraint, a lack of respect, a lack of conservation. Markets aren’t the problem; globalized consumer capitalism, on the other hand, is not interested in conservation, thrift, and the like.

In all of these cases, there is a denial of reality, because acknowledging the reality would require giving up the ideological claim that free markets and limited government are always best, and that they have some special relationship to Christianity, as well. On this Earth Day, it would be nice to imagine that the encyclical would at least lead to an acknowledgement of reality, so that perhaps those who favor different courses of action might get together and collaborate on creative ways forward. Can markets help solve environmental crises? Sure. But in order to have that conversation well, it needs to be recognized that there are serious problems in the present, and by their nature, they are not going to be addressed simply by markets or by proceeding largely with the status quo.

Boston Strong

Do yourself a favor and read the brief, humble, forthright, heartfelt and eloquent statement  from Bill and Denise Richard on the front page of today's Boston Globe  asking the Justice Department not to seek the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev:

"We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal.

We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives."

A federal jury convicted Tsarnaev last week on 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing week-long manhunt two years ago.  Most locals would agree that nobody has a greater right to cry out for vengeance than the Richards.  That they do not, but instead offer a plea to spare Tsarnaev's life may be shocking to some, but I suspect it's not at all surprising to those who know them, their parish community of St. Ann's, and the Ashmont section of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood in which they live.

Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

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Just Said No UPDATE

Making my way into the depths of international news, I was surprised to read that Pakistan had said, "NO," to sending troops to back up the Saudi war againt the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudis have been bombing the Houthis trying to stop their advance into the south of Yemen. General opinion seems to be that bombing alone will not do it, hence the call for Pakistani troops since the Saudis appear not to have a serious ground force of the sort that would be required.

The Pakistanis said, no: their president said no, and then the Parliament voted no. Why? It was not entirely clear, especially since Pakistan is the recipient of very significant loans and gifts from Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulfies.

Here are two reports that provide more information and analysis.

Bruce Reidel at al-monitor reports on the Pakistani assessment and vote on the request and offers a brief analysis of the "no" vote.

Patrick Bahzad at Pat Lang's blog offers a more extended analysis and some interesting speculation on how the Iran nuclear agreement may be shifting the geo-politics of the region, including Pakistan's relations with Iran and China.

UPDATE: Another factor that came to light today: the Saudis wanted only sunni, not shiite soldiers from Pakistan. The Pakistani army is said to be 70 percent sunni and 30 percent shiite. Pakistan has enought troubles without igniting a sunni-shiia war on their own territory.