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Moral Relativism & Super-Intelligence

Can the bedroom of an eleven-year-old girl be objectively a “mess”? To a pair of exhausted, exasperated working parents the answer is obvious. But when the girl in question notes that “mess” is a value claim and thus is not a matter of fact but an opinion, the point must be grudgingly conceded -- though allowance may still be withheld.

Pride in the growing ability of your child to articulate the difference between fact and opinion is tempered by the realization that it’s being turned against you, and that it will soon be deployed in disagreements inevitably more fraught than whether the dirty socks and Taylor Swift t-shirt need to be picked up right now. That my daughter has learned this skill in school on one level validates our decision to enroll her where we did, though on another it suggests continued vigilance is warranted: The Common Core curriculum, under fire from numerous quarters for a number of reasons, is now also getting the attention of moral philosophers who say it “embeds a misleading distinction between fact and opinion.” From Justin P. McBrayer at The Stone blog of The New York Times:

[O]ur public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my [second-grade] son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth.

McBrayer says he’d realized many of his college students already don’t believe in moral facts, and that conversations with other philosophy professors suggest “the overwhelming majority of college freshmen … view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” The implications are obvious and relevant to the recent discussion here concerning curricula at Catholic universities. Concerns about moral relativism in academia are established, though, and it’s too soon to know how anything specifically inculcated by Common Core will have an effect. College students were cheating, for example, long before Common Core; so were corporate executives; so were spouses. But it bears watching, of course, given that millions of students in more than forty states are being educated according to the standards -- which themselves might have arisen out of the academic environment McBrayer describes.

Plus, given the pace of technological development, it might one day be not just human beings that need moral compassing.

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Proof of Prejudice and the NC Shooting

In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive,” read yesterday’s front page of the New York Times. NPR asks, “Hate Crime or Parking Dispute?” This strikes me as a strange line of questioning. Why the rush to distinguish between a parking dispute and religiously motivated hatred? 

Since “hate crime” is a legal term, and prosecuting under hate crime legislation requires a particular burden of proof, quoting the family as saying, “this was a hate crime” (which they have repeated) rather than naming it as such is understandable within journalistic constraints. But whether the crime qualifies as a hate crime in a court of law, and whether we can talk about prejudice as a factor outside the courtroom are different things. Anger over an everyday event and having religious or racial prejudices are clearly not mutually exclusive attitudes, and prejudice is not a clear strain of thought easily plucked out from other kinds of thoughts. This is true whether we are describing ourselves, or another person. That feelings, fears, and motivations are often subconscious or partially conscious is partly why social prejudice is so pernicious. It is still necessary and useful to name prejudice when it’s there, but we cannot so easily claim for ourselves, or for others, when it’s not. Of course, not being able to confirm absence doesn’t confirm presence; criticism of hate crime legislation is often about that very difficulty.

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Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

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Religion in the CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee's "Torture Report," the 500-page report which summarizes a 6,700 page classified report, was released today.

Even for those of us who follow the torture beat closely, this report contains significant new information and corroboration of previous suppositions. Among the most alarming findings is that a minimum of 20% of tortured detainees were wrongly detained, some in blatant cases of mistaken identity.

My own research on torture in U.S. detention facilities has emphasized the religious aspects of abuse ("The Secret Weapon" and "Disgrace"). And though today's report does not contain as much along these lines as did the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report in 2009, it does analyze assertions made by CIA Director Hayden in 2007 about the role of religion in "enhanced interrogation."

Hayden argued that the CIA’s experience with detainees and “their particular psychological profile” necessitated interrogation so burdensome that the detainees would consider themselves released from their religious obligations:

Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point — and that point varies by detainee — their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.

… it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation. (485-86)

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Death penalty in the Colorado gubernatorial race

Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.

Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.

Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."

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Varieties of denial

Paul Krugman marshals German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller in writing about a new book on what economists and policymakers have and haven't learned about the crash of 2008: "The gods themselves contend in vain against stupidity." He's not specifically targeting the author of the book, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, but the would-be reformers who in having come to accept the so-called Standard Model of the crisis (complacency bred by faith in deposit insurance, trust in financial "innovation" and the wisdom of the industry, and the belief that the crisis could be "contained" to the mortgage market) continue to propose drastic spending cuts and deficit reduction as pillars of a stable, even expanding economy. Or, as Krugman himself puts it: to reject "orthodox economics ... in favor of doctrines like 'expansionary austerity'--the unsubstantiated claim that slashing government spending actually creates jobs."
 
Anyone who reads Krugman won't be surprised by his use of the word "wrongheaded" in describing such prescriptions. But it's the "intellectual shifts" he wants to call attention to: "[the unlearning of] the hard-won lessons of the Great Depression, the return to pre-Keynesian fallacies and prejudices." The application of such fallacies prolonged the crisis; the ongoing expression of such prejudices would make worse "the mess we're in." 
 
Krugman's review appears in the same issue of the New York Review of Books as a piece by Priyamavda Natarajan on three new works about science. Or, how science is understood, misunderstood, scapegoated, and rejected by those who aren't scientists -- including politicians and policymakers but also ordinary citizens feeling overwhelmed by it now, whether or not they had a firm handle on it in the first place.
 
Natarajan's main point is that people don't understand the provisionality of science, the idea that incremental advances arrived at through trial and error lead to greater, though perhaps not complete, understanding: provisionality is "the state of knowledge at a given time." What happens is that people both expect too much of science (how could this earthquake not have been predictable?) but also distrust it. Refusal to acknowledge climate change is one obvious manifestation of the latter, illustrated tellingly in Natarajan's account of a North Carolina law forbidding "the use of any new data and allowing only historical data in making estimates of sea-level rise in awarding permits" for development in coastal regions.
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Using 'Hobby Lobby' to refuse a subpoena about child labor

During oral arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sibelius and subsequent written opinions, the Supreme Court debated the case's unintended consequences.

Would laws requiring vaccinations or prohibiting child labor, for example, now be affected by the new interpretation of RFRA? Or would the "parade of horribles" never come to pass?

A new case from Utah provides a surprising early glimpse: a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has successfully refused a federal subpoena based on his religious belief in secrecy.

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Cardinal casts humanity as 'ethical child' on environment

This past Thursday the Scripps Institute confirmed that monthly levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have surpassed 400 parts per million, not only for the first time in human history, but for possibly in more than a million years. Annual measurements taken since 1958 show that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by about 40 percent since humans began burning fossil fuels more than two centuries ago, and that there've been more greenhouse emissions in just the last forty years than the previous two hundred. Interviewed in Slate, Ralph Keeling of Scripps explains the significance of 400 ppm: "People like round numbers. When you hit a milestone you realize how far you've come. It's a little bit surreal. You think, 'Whoa, OK, not quite used to this one yet.' It's like having a round number birthday. It takes a while to identify with the new era you're in."

Yes, round numbers have clarifying effects, and I think Keeling's birthday analogy sits interestingly alongside something Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga said in his remarks opening the Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Planet, Our Responsibility conference now underway at the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of the Sciences: "[M]an finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child." For all the scientific and mathematical complexities we can comprehend, obvious milestones still seem necessary for us to think about things, well, more thoughtfully.

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McCarthyism or Corporate Survival?

Mozilla Firefox is my browser and it works. Every now and again I get an update; sometimes a note asking for a contribution to what is largely/wholly a public-spirited effort to keep the internet open source (or something like that). For some reason, I thought it was an Italian effort (as in Mozarella), but it turns out it organizes itself right here in the U.S. drawing on sources from global techies.

Brendan Eich, its recently appointed CEO is now its recently resigned former CEO. The issue: he donated a thousand dollars to California's proposition 8 campaign in 2008. It was an effort to turn back a California court decision allowing same-sex marriages in the state. Apparently when this contribution was discovered, there was a social media uproar (didn't see it on Mozilla though). There were calls for his resignation, and according to this story in the NYTimes, he did resign.

The great debate: Should Eich have been penalized for his views and his contribution? Andrew Sullivan thinks not in this post on the Dish, "The Hounding of a Heretic."  And continues here. And on Sunnday posted this [HT: Ann Olivier]. Meanwhile,  Farhad Manjoo explains at the NYTimes  why Eich had to go: The very nature of Mozilla required it.

UPDATE: Saturday's NYTimes story: The issue of Mr. Eich's social skills comes up. What would social skills consist of in a libertarian context? The story suggests to me that no Mozillian has much in the way of social skills! Or at least, it can't be much of a job requirement.

UPDATE2: Many comments here link to posts elsewhere on this issue. Michael Kelly @4/7,9:04 quotes some particularly interesting comments on the Supreme Court's treatment of donor lists.

Crumbling Crackers Crisis

No, not Ukraine. Much closer to home. After the Christmas crisis looking for usable pot holders and candy canes, the household now faces the crisis (and mystery) of crumbling crackers. Our long-time favorites "Stoned Wheat Thins," crumble when touched, barely touched.

What are crackers good for? As platforms for peanut butter, herring, and cheese. Shortly after the New Years, opening a new box, I found they did not stay intact long enough to break in half along their perforation. Forget peanut butter!!! Subsequent boxes: more crumble.

Took the matter in hand and wrote to the manufacturer, Mondelez. They have replied: "The differences you noted may be due to a change in the production facility and the process we use to make the cracker. We have also made some minor changes to the formula. Some of the changes we made are: Changed the oil; Removed the Whey Powder; Added Ammonium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite (used to make dough rise)....We apologize for this experience. We will make sure our Quality team is aware of your comments. Thank you for your loyalty and we hope that your next experience is a good one."

Can the experience of crumbling crackers ever be a good one?

Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Naming What We're Doing: A Case Study

There is a fascinating story in today’s Washington Post about an FDA panel debating the question of whether to allow genetic modification of human embryos to “insert” genes of a third person, when there are genetic defects in the original DNA. Quite apart from how this displays our ongoing hostility toward disability, it has produced the most fascinating set of headline developments I have ever seen. On the paper copy of the Post in my library, the headline reads: “FDA debates idea of three-parent babies.” On the Web, the headline is “FDA panel debates technique that that would create embryos with three genetic parents.” Gone are the three-parent babies. Instead, bring in the “techniques” and the “embryos”! But the headline on the Web front page is even further from the print: “FDA debates procedure that mixes DNA from three people to form embryo.” Hmmm. Is “procedure” a bit more medical and less manufacturing in its resonance than is “technique”? Does “mixing DNA to form embryo” work better than “parenting”?

Herbert McCabe wrote in his magnificent Law, Love, and Language that what ethics is really all about is not simply law or love; rather, it is about developing a language whereby we could see more and more deeply and richly into the genuine significance of human living. The headline variance here provides quite a test case!

That Cadillac ad isn’t about stuff?

If you’ve spent any time in the last ten days or so watching the Olympics you may have caught the ad from Cadillac and thought to yourself: wait -- what? To synopsize: pugnacious, squared-jawed guy speaks directly to camera about why the American way of doing things is so great, as he takes the viewer on a swaggering tour of his holdings: from the vista of his infinity pool, across the natural-lit expanses of his glass-sided home, and ultimately to his serene, manicured driveway, where a shiny new Cadillac ELR awaits the promised imprint of his imperial haunches. The ad is titled “Work Hard,” and on advertising site iSpot it’s summarized like this: “Why do you work hard, foregoing [sic] vacation, family, and personal time? For stuff? No, it’s for a sense of accomplishment.” 

Maybe the explanation is necessary, because the actual words—to say nothing of the accompanying images of male dominion (docile and quietly occupied daughters, winsomely smiling wife, immaculate open-floor layout)—do allow for other possible interpretations:

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. You know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there, left the keys in it. You know why? Because we're the only ones going back up there, that's why.

But I digress. It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

So: Inspiring, or repulsive? That’s the either/or quality of the debate that’s taken shape in the days since the ad first aired, but after repeated viewings I find it to be neither. Or, at any rate, not simply repulsive; plenty of commercials just by dint of their being commercials are repulsive. But the (quite literal) wink that comes with this ad pushes it into a different category. Come on, it wants to assure us, we know we’re being over the top here; we’re really just joking. But like anything that comes with a wink, there’s the other, underlying assurance to those in the know that it’s not a joke. Don’t be fooled by the appropriation of talismans of cool like Les Paul and Muhammad Ali—these are just two more acquisitions for this guy, accumulated cultural “capital” no more familiar to him than the art he’s purchased for his walls (as others have pointed out, doesn’t he realize that Ali forswore his given American name, converted to Islam, refused military conscription, and criticized U.S. policy on race and economics?). Don’t be fooled that he actually unplugs his little reward to himself—how much of an offset to a carbon footprint like his will an electric car provide? And then there’s the snotty French sign-off, which against the backdrop of international athletic competition underscores the current “maker” contempt toward any system not explicitly tuned to maximize personal wealth, American-style.

But it’s just a joke. And it’s not about wealth or stuff, even though the Cadillac ELR is, according to the advertising, “priced from $75,000,” home-charging station not included. 

What are the ethics of watching football?

Of all the things President Obama said in the long New Yorker profile-interview last week, I found it interesting how many people seized on his remark that he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. Syria? The ACA? Obstructionist Congressional Republicans? There were about seventeen-thousand other words to choose from, but with the two-week gap between conference championships and Super Bowl Sunday, maybe people were itching for something, anything, football-related to talk about (surely it wasn’t just another reason to criticize Obama for positing “imaginary” offspring and apologizing for America?).

The president said something similar this time last year, only then it was that he’d have to think “long and hard about it.” Of course, the twelve months between have served up still more stories of players now living with (and dying from) the effects of catastrophic brain injury tied to playing football, and still more data confirming the connection. So maybe it’s understandable that his position has solidified. And yet then came what he called his “caveat emptor,” that current NFL players “know what they’re buying into. It’s no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

Just how responsible are fans and viewers of football for the well-being of the people playing it?

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Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism?

It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.

But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed.  And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.

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Russell D. Moore: A Manifesto on "Some" Evangelicals

When I saw that Russell D. Moore had written a long piece about the so-called Evangelical “retreat” from American politics and culture wars, I was elated.

I am updating a syllabus for a course in religion and American politics, and I hoped this would be the perfect fresh take to round out our coverage of Evangelicalism. Certainly the media-savvy and next-generation Moore, the newish President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, would help my students understand the movement better than when they read speeches by his predecessor, Richard Land.

In short, I was primed for this essay.

Sadly, it is not assignable. This 4000-word feature, authored by the most prominent official of the Southern Baptists, is composed almost entirely of straw men.

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Christian Love In Action: Whitey Bulger Trial Edition

Yesterday, a parade of survivors made their way to the witness stand at the Moakley Federal Courthouse to deliver "victim impact statements" before convicted gangster and long-time fugitive Whitey Bulger is sentenced for crimes committed during his decades-long reign of terror in South Boston.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has a terrific column today reporting some of the highlights of an emotionally powerful day.  Among his many crimes, Bulger killed Theresa Bond's father 30 years ago.  Two of her brothers later committed suicide. 

But even as Whitey Bulger ignored her and all the pain inside Judge Denise Casper’s courtroom, Theresa Bond found a weapon to use against him.

“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you,” she told him. “I don’t have that authority. That would be judging you. I do hate the choices that you’ve made, along with your associates, but more so, I hate the choices our government has made to allow you to rule the streets and perform such horrific acts of evil.”

When she was finished with him, Bond left Whitey Bulger with this: “Mr. Bulger, do you have remorse for taking my father’s life? I think you do. I forgive you.”

 

Income inequality isn't going away

A few months ago, there was some good discussion on the blog about the persistently large gap in income inequality. And though the Occupy movement no longer garners headlines, the problem of income inequality remains a core moral issue for many Americans. It is widely thought that Bill de Blasio's focus on the topic has aided his rise in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Sullivan's influential blog continues its coverage of the data, which shows that just since 2009, top 1% income has grown by 31.4% and everyone else's has been basically flat. Our own E. J. Dionne continues to cover the politics of inequality, and the U.S.C.C.B. has not shied away from it in its advocacy.

Last time we talked about it on this blog, we focused on ratios of CEO-to-worker pay in a given year, and David Cloutier followed up with a longer analysis at Catholic Moral Theology. But the problem is about more than a given year -- it's about the long-term trend from the late 1970's to the present. Timothy Noah has called this period The Great Divergence, in a multifaceted analysis of the possible causes of the growing gap. To my mind, the long-term story offers a compelling moral problem for our time, and one without an easy solution.

A quick way to capture the "great divergence" is this summary of the Economic Policy Institute's report from last year, about which Jena McGregor at the Washington Post wrote:

Average CEO compensation, according to EPI’s calculations, rose 726.7 percent between the years of 1978 and 2011 — more than double the percentage increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Meanwhile, pay for the average private-sector nonsupervisory worker rose a startlingly meager 5.7 percent. ...

My guess is that it’s this inequality that really erodes worker satisfaction and guts employee morale far more than the discrepancy between the top and bottom in any one year’s pay.

I think she's right. Everyone expects annual ratios of 20-to-1 or even 200-to-1 in our form of capitalism. But the fact that purchasing power has not trickled down in the long run -- over my whole lifetime -- is what drains energy and optimism.

One feature of Pope Francis's pontificate has been a renewed emphasis on moral issues that had been thought of as peripheral for many Catholics. He has expanded the core of what counts as a central moral issue. But it's worth remembering that his predecessor had strong words on growing inequality, such as those quoted in the U.S.C.C.B.'s letter from Labor Day:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. . . . Through the systemic increase of social inequality . . . not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of "social capital" . . . indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Caritas in Veritate no. 32)

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is famous for saying, "The federal budget is a moral document." I agree. But every budget is a moral document -- from that of Wal-Mart down to that of each family's breakfast table. In a democracy, the problem of income inequality is everyone's problem. And it's not going away.

Unjustified, by just-war standards

Now featured on the homepage: George Hunsinger evaluates the proposed attack on Syria by the criteria of just war--and finds it wanting.

How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.

In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.

Read the whole thing here.