Center for Ethics and Leadership

Monday, September 29, 2008

America Still Doesn't Get It -- The Financial Crisis

I took lunch at 1:30 today, just in time to watch the House vote fail and the Dow drop 700 points. About a half-hour ago, I received a prerecorded telemarketing call offering me a small business loan for $8,000. No, I am not in business. The caller has a bad list, but that is not why I posted this note.

Faith-Based Investors Issue Statement on Financial Crisis

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR []), a coalition of nearly 300 faith-based institutional investors representing over $100 billion in invested capital issued a statement on September 26 that raised concerns about the financial crisis and its effects. ICCR spoke of greater transparency, predatory lending, and other issues. The organization expressed concern that the poorest and marginalized not bear undue burdens as a result of the crisis and that there be no bailout for shareholders and no golden parachutes. ICCR also said that the root causes of the meltdown (e.g., unregulated derivatives) should be addressed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Carl Anderson, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden

A couple of shots have been fired back and forth, culminating in Knights of Columbus President Carl Anderson's open letter to Joe Biden last week, which was published as a full-page ad in several newspapers.

Basically, Pelosi and Biden have picked up the argument made by some Catholic scholars that the Christian church's teaching against abortion was not consistent through the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. Consequently, there is room to maneuver in Catholic teaching.

After Pelosi said it, the Catholic bishops quickly disagreed. Biden made the statement on Meet the Press about two weeks ago, and Anderson responded.

There are problems with all three arguments. Biden and Pelosi first since they are the easiest to dispose of. As Anderson writes, the early and medieval church was consistently opposed to abortion. The arguments may have changed over the centuries, but the position did not.

Anderson is more difficult. Biden is wrong about the history of Christian teaching on abortion, but the substance of his position defends religious pluralism, which the Vatican, contending that the issue can be proved by reason and thus should appeal to all people regardless of faith, rejected as the relevant question in this matter in its official statement more than 30 years ago. Unfortunately, Americans of all faiths have not been persuaded as a philosophical matter that the fetus has the full moral status of a human being and may not be killed. That is not as complicated a philosophical argument as it may appear; however, the best recent work has been done by scientists and thinkers at Baylor, which is Baptist, and Princeton. John Kavanaugh, S.J. whom I often cite in my blog, has tried both to make the philosophical case and also suggested political compromise.

There is also irony in Anderson's appeal to Aquinas' limited knowledge of biology, which led the great thinker to postulate that fetuses were not human until several weeks into pregnancy. Those theologians who have argued that the Church's teaching on birth control depends on medieval biology have been roundly criticized.

Anderson also appeals to the argument that slaves in the U.S. were not treated as fully human which shows that both society and the courts can be wrong. Fair enough, but slaves were humans that had already been born. Those who deny moral status to the fetus are clear that they are talking about an unborn and not fully formed human being. That returns us to the genetic and embryological arguments previously referred to.

Anderson also writes that Biden's unflinching support of Roe v. Wade implies his "endorsement" of late term abortion. This ad hominem imputation of motive is an insult not an argument.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

McCain and Pro-Choice War

Read the above headline carefully. Its says war, not wars. John Kavanaugh, S.J., to whose clear thinking I often refer, has written an open letter to Sen. McCain that follows his open letter to Sen. Obama. You can read both in the online version of America, as the magazine has not restricted them to subscribers.

Had I written "McCain and the Pro-Choice Wars," this might have been another entry on abortion. It is instead about Iraq, which Kavanaugh long ago called George Bush's "war of choice." In his current column, he tells McCain that many Catholics would like to vote for him, but as Obama presents a problem with his stance on abortion, so does McCain with his position on Iraq. So who to vote for? Here is how Kavanaugh puts it:

How are we to treat the least of our brothers and sisters, whether they are unborn, undocumented or citizens of a country we are set to invade?

This is a profound question, and one on which much politics turns.

Vatican Again Snubs Creationism

Creationists will not be among the invited speakers at conference organized by the Vatican's Gregorian Pontifical University and the University of Notre Dame to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Good.

No, the real news here is not that the Vatican is catching up with science after the evolution and Galileo fiascoes. The real story behind both controversies has been the interpretation of scripture and its implications for the continuing intellectual viability of Catholicism. Through the early 20th century, official Catholic teaching was firmly -- uncompromisingly -- insistent that the literal interpretation of the Bible was true, even as it admitted of allegorical, typological, and spiritual interpretation. Great Catholic scholars, priests all, were silenced by their religious superiors on orders of the Vatican, and the ripples were felt as late as 1960 at The Catholic University of America.

In 1943, the door to critical interpretation opened with the publication of Pius XII's Divino afflante spiritu. Vatican II's Dei Verbum 20 years later flung it wide.

And not a moment too soon. Roman Catholic biblical scholarship had fallen decades behind Protestant scholarship (ironically the first advocates of critical scripture study were two French priests in the late 17th century). For the last few decades, however, some of the best biblical scholarship has been produced by Catholics.

Financial Messes and Corporate Welfare II

That was quite a ride, wasn't it? Like one of those newer roller coasters designed to scare you to death, Wall Street took us way up and then way down. Or was it the other way around? In any event, banks and governments around the world joined together to enable the market to regain self-control.

It is far from over, I know, but the drop of nearly 1,000 points early in the week followed by a concomitant rise at week's end provided more thrills to this only-ten-years-from-retirement college professor than he cares to have.

Some have been quick to blame Bill Clinton in the way that they like to make everything that goes wrong his fault. It was during his administration that the bill deregulating the mortgage market was passed, but deregulation has been a passion since Richard Nixon took the country off the modified gold standard in 1972 at the behest of financial interests. Ronald Reagan of course was the apostle of deregulation. Both parties did this. And if I knew more about economics, I would probably have something to say about Alan Greenspan.

There may have been a time when markets thrived without regulation. We do not live in that world. We do not live in Adam Smith's industrializing British Empire. The fundamental philosophy may be sound, but the world has changed.

An econ prof at my place said to me that the financial markets are based on three things -- note that none of these is material -- rationality, honesty, and trust. How long until the trust is restored? Or have we learned the lesson that humans do not always keep trusts? Where were the ethics? Where was the leadership?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Financial Messes and Corporate Welfare

I'm going to rant a little on this one. How do these billionaire high-fliers get bailed out by my government? Even if the Treasury covers the losses with more bonds, that increases interest rates as the U.S. government borrows the available money. Free market economist Milton Friedman argued 20 years ago that there are "hidden" forms of taxation, namely, government deficits and the corresponding higher cost of money and inflation. And what will inflation be as these debts are settled? One hopes that we are not headed for the sort of banking panics that tortured the U.S. economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Except that now the threatened economy is global. This last will make it tougher on poorer countries who are more financially fragile. Ironically, my doctoral students and I are currently reading Robert Greenleaf's work on servant leadership. There's none of that in this mess.

And on to corporate welfare. When mortgagees first began to default, I heard a little too much of "Well they made that choice; they have to bear the consequences, even if it means losing their homes." That good, old-fashioned American ethic of personal responsibility. So here's another old-fashioned idea: swindling. Anyone can be sold a bill of goods, especially for a purchase highly valued by society such as a home. And the big financial houses were working the other end by bundling these high-risk loans into larger packages and reselling them. So here we are. And if the government doesn't act, who knows how far Wall Street will fall? And London. And Tokyo. And Hong Kong.

We have had 20 years of this financial profligacy. Start with Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. A couple of financial houses went down with them. (Does anyone remember Drexel, Burnham, Lambert?) Then the savings and loan scandal. Then the bust, Enron, and Worldcomm in rapid succession. Now this. And the answer? "Let's make them take an ethics course!" Lipstick on a pig.

Next time a you see a homeless person begging: think about the bigger picture.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Abstinence, Abortion, and Other Inflammatory Issues

I have not been here for nearly three weeks, but a few of you have been active in response. The college presidents got us started on the drinking age, and Gov. Palin has reminded us of other issues. So how do we discuss these things that we like to consider private if we are involved, but are also public policy issues when we consider the wider society?

Bristol Palin's pregnancy unfortunately brought out the worst in those who oppose abstinence-only education, who were only too happy in their blogs to make cutting remarks about the governor's position. Here's a lesson in logic, or perhaps it's child-rearing: they don't always do what you tell them to do, even if you think you have drilled it into their heads. That's the child-rearing. Here's the logic: that the statistics on abstinence-only education are bad does not mean that comprehensive sex education has worked. American women still abort about 25 percent of their pregnancies, very rarely because of fetal indications (defects) or health concerns to themselves. Again, that you tell sons and daughters "not to do anything stupid" doesn't mean that they won't.

Abortion, which played a small role in both parties' primaries, seems to have returned as an important issue. (See my August 20 post, "Catholics, Democrats, and Abortion.) As John Kavanaugh implied, the court will not overturn Roe, and a constitutional amendment is unlikely. Neither has occurred in 35 years, nor is this post a plea that either should. Rather, other solutions must be sought. Again, can we get beyond the shouting match of "life-choice"?

The discussion I point to is not simply a discussion of sexuality and reproduction as matters of autonomy. Our legal system has framed the debate along those lines, as I think it should. But there is much more to a public policy discussion than a narrow legal framework. And I think most Americans agree but want the government's power limited in this area so that they can find meaning, secular or religious, in this most profound of human experiences, which should be viewed holistically as sexuality and reproduction. Unfortunately, we seem reluctant to engage each other in what that meaning might be, but are instead suspicious of of each others' remarks.

As for lowering the drinking age, well, that suggestion got no traction. Correction: even the suggestion to have the discussion got no traction.