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by Peterr

A Few Religious Objections to Hobby Lobby, et al.

6:45 am in climate change, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Health Care, Judiciary, LGBT, Military, Religion by Peterr

After reading through some of the recaps of the oral arguments at SCOTUS yesterday in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, it appears that some of the justices, and perhaps a majority, are willing to allow private religious objections to trump the laws, regulations, and ordinances enacted by local, state, and federal governments. Just so that no one is surprised later, I thought I’d lay out some of my strongly held religious beliefs now.

I have a strong religious objection to the death penalty, yet for the fifth time in five months, my state of Missouri has spent my tax dollars to carry it out. At the foundation of the Christian church — the Lutheran branch of which I am pleased to serve as a pastor — is the story of the execution of Jesus at the hands of the state and his resurrection three days later, through which God says “No” to the death-dealing forces of the world. My tax dollars are spent at the state and federal level to support exactly this system of vengeance, not justice, which all too often is administered in a way that is irregular at best and occasionally flat out wrong at worst.

I also have a strong religious objection to torture, yet my state and federal government continue to spend millions of tax dollars on that form of torture known as “solitary confinement,” and tens or hundreds or thousands of millions on “enhanced interrogations” and the hiding thereof from the oversight of the courts. Indeed, I have strong religious objections to NOT spending my tax dollars to bring the perpetrators and enablers of torture to justice.

I have strong — very strong — religious objections to the unequal treatment of people before the law, yet the Department of Justice seems bent on spending my tax dollars and the tax dollars of similarly-minded folks by the millions to chase the poor and powerless into prison while giving the wealthy and powerful sternly worded letters and a good talking-to. In the financial fraud around the housing market, homeowners are hounded and unscrupulous mortgage dealers are allowed to roam free. During the recent Lesser Depression, homeowners pushed underwater by the practices of their banks have suffered greatly (“We’re sorry, but your equity has disappeared because the property values have fallen so much because we crashed the economy”), yet the SEC and DOJ use my tax dollars to go to great extremes to settle civil litigation with the the banks in such a toothless fashion that the board of JPMorgan Chase gave Jamie Dimon a 74% raise after guiding them through with only a slap on the corporate wrist. And you don’t want to know how strongly I object on religious grounds to the failure of the DOJ to pursue criminal rather than civil penalties . . .

I have viscerally strong religious objections to sexual abuse, yet the military paid for with my tax dollars continues to turn a blind eye to the climate in the military that leads thousands of those in the ranks to not report the harassment, abuse, and rapes they have suffered at the hands of their colleagues and commanders, and that allows far too many of those against whom reports of abuse were filed to avoid accountability. Similarly, I have strong religious objections to NOT spending my tax dollars to do this on every US military base and port and outpost.

I have extremely strong religious objections using my tax dollars to administer the public law in secret, with secret judicial proceedings, secret decisions, and secret sentences.

I have powerfully strong religious objections to using my tax dollars to carry out executive decisions made on the basis of secret evidence to violate the sovereign territory of other nations in order to remotely execute those with whom they disagree, without allowing the accused an opportunity to know the accusations against them, to state their case, to respond to the allegations, or even to publicly confront their accuser. I especially object when such executions are carried out against an anonymous targets based on undefined notions of “suspicion” and “association.”

I have seriously strong religious objections to using my local, state, and federal taxes to provide a public education to my child and the children of my neighbors that is incomplete (such as abstinence-only sex education), or based on disproven science, pseudo-conflicts, and unproven beliefs. The earth is round, old, and getting warmer by the day because of human activity. There is no serious scientific objection to these concepts, and I strongly object on religious grounds to using my tax dollars to teach otherwise.

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by Peterr

This Nation Is Not Great Because We Embrace Conservative Talking Points

10:28 pm in 2012 election by Peterr

As I listened to the opening to the State of the Union speech, I know I was going to have a rough night. Last week, I spent a couple hours on the phone with a seminary friend. One of her daughter’s friends from high school was just killed in Afghanistan as a member of the Indiana National Guard, and my friend was trying to deal with the effect this is having both on her daughter and also the mother of the dead soldier (who was also a friend of my friend).

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. . . .

I’m sorry, but our military adventurism has not made us safer, nor more respected, and to start the speech like this really put me off.

As one who makes a lot of public speeches, I was struck by the way in which this speech was structured. In particular, I quickly noticed that the way in which each issue was laid out followed the same pattern.

Before Obama made any kind of progressive-leaning statement or proposal, he always seemed to embrace or praise some kind of conservative sentiment or talking point first. When talking about the “house of cards” that is the housing industry mess, he criticized homeowners first and banks second. When talking about tax reforms, relief for corporations came first. When talking about education, raising standards came first, and criticizing shortsighted budget cuts came second. When talking about students, mandating education up to age 18 came first, before raising the issues of college affordability or post-college jobs.

Oh, wait a minute.

(scrolls through text of the speech again)

He didn’t say anything about these grads getting jobs after college. My bad.

Or his.

*sigh*

When talking about “American-made energy,” Obama spent paragraphs praising the oil and natural gas industries before saying one word about alternatives. Every single time, no matter what the issue, it felt not as if the conservative position was a leadup to the something stronger from the progressive end of things, but rather that progressive-leaning positions were being given the rhetorical back seat.

*sigh*

The financial crimes unit stuff really ticked me off. “So pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count,” he said, but passing legislation makes no difference if charges never get filed and cases do not get tried. Robo-signing and forgery are already criminal acts, lying to grand juries and judges is already illegal, and robosigning on a massive scale is a conspiracy to commit fraud. You don’t need new legislation to file these charges or prosecute the offenders. These are already crimes; you just need to treat them like that, rather than continuing to look for a deal that will give banks immunity for their past crimes.

Blergh.

Obama delivered the speech well, and the word had clearly gone out not to step on the rhetoric by applauding every sentence and screwing up the rhythm and flow. Kudos to whoever pushed the Congress critters not to turn this into an applause circus.

Oddly, given the prominence given to the conservative issues and talking points throughout the speech, as well as the hagiographic depiction of the military, the very last paragraph was a very pleasant surprise.

No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

(Am I way off base for thinking Obama probably needs to thank Elizabeth Warren for essentially writing it? See her comments here, starting at about the 0:55 mark.)

The repetition of “This nation is great because . . .” rang the changes of progressive thinking without apology. There was no “this nation is great because we’ve got bigger weapons” or “larger navies” or “more precise drones.” There was no “this nation is great because it’s every man for himself in the jungle of the market.”

No, the greatness of our nation — our true greatness — comes not from our military might but our unity of purpose, and not just any purpose but the purpose proclaimed in a document that begins “We the people of the United States . . .” and laid out more fully in the words that follow:

. . . in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .

It’s a pity that more of the speech wasn’t built around that theme of what makes this nation great. Instead, Obama reached again and again to the talking points of the right first, then gestured left, hoping again for a middle ground that does not exist.

by Peterr

Cleaning up from Tornadoes, Both Natural and Financial

3:21 pm in Economy by Peterr

According to the NYT’s reporters Kevin Sack and Timothy Williams, the government response thus far to the tornadoes that spun their way across the South last week has been a marked improvement over the response to Katrina — the last major natural disaster of a similar size. Local, state, and federal agencies are working better together and coordinating their work with the various charitable groups to deal with the immediate needs for food, shelter, and the like.

President Obama, too, appears to have learned from the past:

Stung by criticism that he waited 12 days to tour the Gulf Coast after last year’s BP oil spill, Mr. Obama took barely 40 hours to land in Tuscaloosa, the hardest-hit area in the seven Southern states struck by tornadoes last week. The death toll stands at about 350 people; Alabama officials said that included 249 in their state, with 39 in Tuscaloosa County.

“I’ve never seen devastation like this,” Mr. Obama said after Friday’s tour. “It is heartbreaking.”

It is indeed. I have clergy friends who are giving thanks for the twisters having missed their churches and the cities in which they live, and others who are mourning the loss of both lives and property.

But I’m struck by the quote from Obama.

There’s another disaster that has wreaked havoc on community after community across the nation. I’m speaking of certain urban areas that have been destroyed not by tornadoes and forces of nature, but torn apart by the financial meltdown, the mortgage mess, and the foreclosure crisis.

Like parts of Alabama after last week’s tornadoes, these areas have block after block of blighted homes and empty lots. Plywood covers the doors and windows of some, while others simply fall to pieces. They didn’t get that way by an “act of God” but by virtue of deliberate acts of human greed and callousness on the part of unscrupulous lenders, mindless robosigners, and coldly calculating investment bankers.

The Woodstock Institute put out a report last January entitled “Left Behind: Troubled Foreclosed Properties and Servicer Accountability in Chicago” [pdf] that spells out the toll that the foreclosure crisis has placed on one major urban area. From the introduction (pdf p.4):

The ongoing foreclosure crisis has led to a dramatic increase in vacant and abandoned properties across the City of Chicago. While some of these properties are secured and maintained by their owners, many are not and can pose significant risks for neighborhood stability. Vacant and abandoned properties can rapidly spiral into disrepair, affecting the values of neighboring properties and attracting criminal activity. In many cases, vacant properties lack clear ownership, without which the substantial costs of dealing with these troubled properties are borne by the city and by the community. Often, the most troubled properties are concentrated in African American communities on the City fs South and West sides, frequently clustered on highly distressed blocks.

The foreclosure crisis has made some of the traditional concerns with vacant properties more complicated. In the past, concerns about vacant properties and foreclosure were largely tied to the disposition of properties that had completed the foreclosure process, entered a mortgage servicer’s portfolio of lender-owned properties, often called real estate owned (REO) properties, and sat vacant until they could be sold and returned to productive use. While the management of such properties remains an issue, there are growing concerns about vacant properties where a foreclosure has been filed but has not yet been completed. Properties that are not occupied or proactively maintained by mortgage servicers are at high risk of falling into disrepair and having a significant negative impact on the community. This is especially true for troubled properties that have been in this state for extended periods of time, raising concerns that the servicer has chosen to charge-off the mortgage after initiating foreclosure and has effectively “walked away” from the property.

If President Obama wants another eye-opening tour, he might ring up his old friend Rahm Emanuel at City Hall in Chicago and the two of them could stroll through some of the neighborhoods like West Englewood (176 properties), Roseland (137), Englewood (137), and Austin (110). [There's a nice map on pdf page 11 of "Left Behind" if they need directions.]

After strolling the streets, perhaps they could retire to an office at City Hall to take a look at the larger picture of this non-natural disaster, as described by the Woodstock Institute (p. 3):

Foreclosures make up a significant portion of properties on the City’s vacant buildings index. There were 18,320 properties on the City’s vacant buildings index as of September 2010. Of these, 12,674, or 69.2 percent, were associated with a foreclosure filed between 2006 and the first half of 2010. Of these 12,674 properties, 10,778 were related to a foreclosure filing which was linked to a subsequent outcome such as a completed foreclosure auction or a property transfer such as a short sale. There were 1,896 “red flag” properties on the City’s vacant buildings index where there was a foreclosure filing with no subsequent outcome.

These “red flag” properties are of significant concern to City officials and communities, particularly if they sit vacant for extended periods of time. Of the “red flag” properties identified, over 40 percent of these “red flag” homes have been in the foreclosure process for more than a year and a half, which means their loan servicers likely have decided not to complete foreclosure.

“Red flag” foreclosures are disproportionately concentrated in Chicago’s African American communities. Over 71 percent of  “red flag” homes are located in highly African-American communities, compared to only 6.5 percent in predominantly white communities. African-American communities are 11 times more likely to have a “red flag” home than are white communities, while they are 3 times more likely to have a foreclosed property and 6 times more likely to have a vacant building.

There are a substantial number of properties in the citywide inventory of likely vacant lender-owned properties that are not registered with the City as vacant properties. There are 2,558 lender-owned single family homes that are likely vacant but not registered with the City of Chicago. This represents over 57 percent of the inventory of lender-owned single family homes in the City as of the third quarter of 2010. These homes are likely not secured and maintained to the standards required by the City of Chicago and may be in an advanced state of disrepair.

The path toward recovering from this disaster — and preventing the disaster from continuing to spread — is not difficult to identify. The Woodstock Institute names four basic steps that can be taken to clean things up and prevent other communities from being blown apart by the winds of Wall Street’s shenanigans:

Keep properties occupied – For occupied properties, servicers should more aggressively pursue loan modifications that would allow owners to stay in their homes. In situations where loan modifications are not possible, servicers should allow occupants to remain in the property for a defined period of time so that the property remains occupied and does not become blighted. Servicers could also incent occupants to maintain the property so that it does not fall into disrepair. . . .

Hold servicers accountable – Where appropriate, state and federal regulatory agencies should hold servicers accountable for their property disposition strategies. Regulators should monitor whether servicers are complying with local vacant building regulations. Regulators should also ensure that servicers have developed and are implementing strategies to ensure that charged-off properties do not become blighted. Servicers should also be monitored to ensure that they are providing timely information both to city departments and the current property owner when they choose to charge off a loan on a property. . . .

Increase the ability of cities to enforce existing vacant building regulations – Local governments should be given more authority to ensure that mortgage servicers maintain vacant properties up to required standards. Such authority might include making financial institutions with a legal interest in the property responsible for property upkeep and any violations of local building codes and ordinances that might occur at a property even when the owner of record cannot be found or is no longer willing to maintain the property. Increasing the levels of servicer accountability for the outcomes of properties could work to shift internal cost-benefit analysis in favor of loss mitigation efforts, such as loan modifications, that would keep properties occupied.

Improve data sharing to increase information on vacant buildings – Many vacant building ordinances, including the City of Chicago’s, place the onus of registering a vacant property on its owner because a city has a limited capacity to catalog and keep current an index of all vacant properties. However, other entities already collect and update such data and could provide assistance to city governments. . . . These data are publicly reported at an aggregated level, but having such data available at the address level for certain types of properties, such as long-term vacancies, would better identify potential troubled buildings and vacancy hotspots.

Recommendation #2 is the key, and Obama is perfectly situated to make this at least begin to be a reality. Holding servicers and property owners accountable will make them much more interested in keeping the property occupied, either by doing loan modifications for the existing residents or by forcing them to maintain the property rather than letting it simply decay.

The communities that have been destroyed by the financial tornadoes are no less devastated than those destroyed by natural tornadoes, and the toll on the people is no less heartbreaking. The financial tornadoes didn’t roll through in a single night, but wreaked their destruction slowly over time. And they continue to spin out of control.

We may not be able to control natural tornadoes, but we damn well can control financial ones.

If we want to, that is.

(photo h/t: faceless b)

by Peterr

Speeches on Deficits, Then and Now

6:22 am in Afghanistan, Countries in Conflict, Economy, Education, Elections, Iraq by Peterr

Way back in January 2008, a certain presidential candidate gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation once served by Martin Luther King Jr. . . .

. . . “Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Pause for a minute and let that sink in: “the empathy deficit is the essential deficit that exists in this country.”

We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down corridors of shame, schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education. We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than ordinary workers are making in an entire year, when families lose their homes so unscrupulous lenders can make a profit, when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children are stricken with illness. We have a deficit in this country when we have Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others, when our children see hanging nooses from a school yard tree today, in the present, in the 21st century. We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities, when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur, when young Americans serve tour after tour after tour after tour of duty in a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. We have an empathy deficit in this country that has to be closed. We have a deficit when it takes a breach in the levees to reveal the breach in our compassion, when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed, the sick that He calls on us to care for, the least of these that He commands that we treat as our own. So, we have a deficit to close. We have walls, barriers to justice and equality that must come down, and to do this, we know that “unity is the great need of the hour.”

These words were spoken in 2008, but they seem even more appropriate today. Those schools that were in trouble three years ago are in worse shape now, as every state in the country has been cutting back on funding, leaving every district to axe teachers and staff, raise class sizes, and defer maintenance. That “tour after tour after tour after tour of duty” has had at least one more “after tour” added onto it, and atrocities continue to pile up. Foreclosure fraud is rampant, the facts of the global financial crisis show serious legal problems for the bankers that created it, and yet the SEC is “taking a light touch” with the banks and bank executives apparently are getting Scooter Libby justice. (Have you heard the news? Goldman Sachs is likely to “face fresh embarrassment” over their role in the global financial crisis.) And as long as we’re talking about military action without congressional authorization, meet Libya.

If the need was great in 2008, it’s off the charts today.

But back to that candidate . . . skipping ahead in his remarks a bit:

However, all too often, when we talk about unity in this country, we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. . . We offer unity, but we are not willing to pay the price that’s required.

Of course, true unity cannot be so easily purchased. It starts with a change in attitudes. It starts with changing our hearts, and changing our minds, broadening our spirit. It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see past our own differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. What makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart, that puts up walls between us. We are told that those who differ from us on a few things, differ from us on all things, that our problems are the fault of those who don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The Welfare Queen, she’s taking our money. The Immigrant, he’s taking our jobs. The believer condemns the nonbeliever as immoral, and the nonbeliever chides the believer for being intolerant.

[snip]

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The divisions, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame the plight of ourselves on others — all of that distracts us from the common challenges that we face, war and poverty, inequality and injustice. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It’s the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late. Because if Dr. King could love his jailer, if he could call on the faithful, who once sat where you do, to forgive those who had set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time and bind up our wounds and erase the sympathy deficit that exists in our hearts.

But if changing our hearts and our minds is the first critical step, we cannot stop there. It’s not enough to bemoan the plight of the poor in this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide the resources to fix our schools. It’s not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block real reform in our health care system. It’s not enough — It’s not enough for us to abhor the costs of a misguided war, and yet we continue to allow ourselves to be driven by a politics of fear that sees the threat of an attack as a way to scare up votes instead of a call to come together in a common effort. . .

Boy, did he nail it on that one. As far as I can tell, the politics of fear is what makes DC run these days, not only on terrorism but on the budget, health care, social security, and everything else.

I wonder what ever happened to that guy. We sure could use someone like this in DC to take on the fear-mongers.

Say, did you hear that President Obama is going to give a speech on Wednesday, addressing deficit reduction? As the Washington Post headline writer summed things up, “Obama’s New Approach to Deficit Reduction to include Spending on Entitlements.

Before he speaks on Wednesday, maybe Obama should go listen to what that presidential candidate had to say at Ebenezer Baptist Church a couple of years ago.