Christian Democracy is dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker. The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

The Second Best Solution

May 21, 2015

The City Council of Los Angeles has voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2020. [1] That’s progress. A worker making that much today can support a spouse and three children above the poverty line according the Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines. [2] It remains to be seen whether $15.00 per hour will accomplish the same in 2020 when the new minimum wage goes fully into effect. 

It is foundational in Catholic Social Teaching that a “worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family,” [3] and that if “through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” [4] But there are many factors to be taken into account in determining the proper amount of a just wage. 

Businesses come in different sizes with varying resources with which to pay their workers. Some jobs require more restricted hours than others because of the nature of the work. Companies are in varying localities. What might be rightly considered a just wage in one place could be inadequate in another one. Because of differences like these, setting by means of governmental legislation a minimum wage at a specific dollar amount is likely to be an inexact remedy. But there is a well-known alternative.  

In point of fact, in Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII expressed concern that the State might become too directly involved in the relations between workers and their employers, and the difficulties associated with arriving at a standard rule suitable for all situations might have been what was on his mind. Instead, what he proposed was the formation of labor unions. Only the collective bargaining afforded by unions can arrive at true living wages that are suitable for all circumstances.   

Unfortunately, in the United States, labor unions have been on the decline for some time. In 1954 28.3% of employed workers were union members. [5] By 2014 that figure had shrunk to 11.1%. There appear to be few in a position to do anything about it who desire to reverse this trend.   

The Democratic Party has long been thought of as the party of labor in the United States, and the unions seem to remain largely loyal. But the latest manifestation of Democratic concern for American workers is President Obama’s aggressive push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, and the capitulation of Senate Democrats in giving the president “fast track” authority to negotiate it. [6] The Democratic Party is the abortion party, and that is what they can be relied on to defend. The Republicans, of course, have become positively anti-labor. 

With major political parties like these, the cause of working people in the United States will be an uphill struggle for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the living wage movement has enjoyed recent successes, most recently in Los Angeles. Collective bargaining for every working person in the United States would be far more effective for bringing living wages to every person and household, but that is no reason to look askance at living wage legislation, which appears to be the only remedy available for now.   

Jack Quirk

The Devil Is in the Details

May 17, 2015

Stone Mountain, Georgia made national news last week, albeit in the least favorable of ways.  At a recent graduation ceremony, now-former high school principal, Nancy Gordeuk, was caught “on cellphone video condemning people for leaving early by saying: ‘Look who’s leaving … all the black people.’”  Afterwards, she sent this apologetic message to parents via email: “The devil was in the house and came out from my mouth.  I deeply apologize for my racist comment and hope that forgiveness is in your hearts.”

As a sign of the growing prevalence of secularist assumptions in our society, by which even nominally religious people are influenced, Gordeuk’s reference to the devil was predictably mocked.  Paraphrasing her explanation, an atheist friend of mine quipped, “The devil made me do it!”  As a somewhat lengthy side-note, this catchphrase doesn’t even seem to be religious in its origin.  It was popularized (some say coined) by comedian and actor, Flip Wilson, who described himself as a "Jehovah's bystander".  The phrase is specifically used to mock religious people.  Any reference to the devil will invite this phrase in our increasingly secular society; heck, if I were an atheist, I might also be tempted to resort to such tactics (although I hope that I would ultimately resist this temptation, because it is totally lacking in charity).

Of course, Gordeuk never uttered this phrase.  She did, however, mention the devil.  Then again, it is quite common to mention drunkenness, bad temper, poverty, poor upbringing, or any of a host of other details in order to make sense of - though not necessarily excuse - terrible decisions.  I could be wrong, and perhaps I’m being overly polemical here, but it seems to me that the only reason why the devil explanation seems different to some people is either because they have already made up their minds that religion is nonsense, or because they're only nominally religious and really serve the idol of popular opinion, which has anathematized (so to speak) belief in such otherworldly forces.  However naïve and outdated some view this belief today, it is basic Christian doctrine that such forces exist, urging us to choose evil over good.  We cannot expect her to set aside this belief merely because fewer people accept it today.  It’s worth noting, parenthetically, that we should consider the possibility that we are overstating the extent to which she attributes her comment to the devil simply because news stories have chosen to focus on this particular aspect in their headlines.

But what of the claim that Gordeuk attempted to excuse her behavior by attributing it entirely to the devil’s prompting?  As another friend put it to me, “citing metaphysical forces as the sole impetus for human action negates the concept of free will and self-determination.  It absolves all of us of any responsibility for our actions.”

As a matter of fact, no movement has done more harm to the concept of free will than that of atheism (let me preface the comments that follow by emphasizing that I am not suggesting that all atheists subscribe to the view that I am about to address).  Viewing behavior as reducible to neurological activity, atheists like Sam Harris tend to see free will as an “illusion”.  Were Gordeuk an atheist, she might have been characterized as saying, “My brain made me do it!”

The truth is that religion affirms our free will in choosing between good and evil.  Without denying responsibility for her remarks or attributing "the sole impetus" for them to "metaphysical forces", Gordeuk’s explanation implies the reason why we often choose the latter over the former.  Indeed, if the latter never appeared to us as an attractive option - but was instead neurologically predetermined - then free will would be a meaningless concept.

For all I know, Gordeuk could be a rabid racist who, on that fateful day, simply failed to restrain what Peter Holley of the Washington Post surmises to be a deep-seated racial prejudice.  Perhaps her apology is completely lacking in sincerity, as so many appear to assume.  But since I cannot search her heart, I will not make these assumptions.  I can pridefully distinguish myself from her in not having ever uttered such bigoted comments, but I suspect that my rejection of racism has little to do with my own efforts, and is mostly the result of an upbringing and education that, though little fault of their own, others have not shared.  Hence why I am not too quick to reject her apology.  I’m certainly in no position to do so.  Are you? 

Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.  He is the editor of a forthcoming book entitled Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf & Stock), as well as the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Faith Magazine.

Even When Casting the First Stone Seems Appropriate

May 16, 2015

The occasion of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence [1] is a good time to talk about capital punishment. This is because Mr. Tsarnaev is so clearly guilty of murder, and he is such an unsympathetic criminal defendant, that the subject can be looked at in stark relief. An opponent of the death penalty cannot avail himself of the individual circumstances surrounding Mr. Tsarnaev to make his case. But a case can be made, and ought to be heeded. Saint Pope John Paul II put it this way in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae

“This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

“In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person’.” [2] 

The purpose of punishment in a criminal justice system must be kept in focus when the question of capital punishment is considered, and that purpose is to “redress the disorder caused by the offence.” This has two facets: (1) it must defend public order and ensure public safety, and (2) it must offer the offender both the incentive and assistance to be rehabilitated. But when the death penalty is imposed, the offender has no chance at rehabilitation. Therefore, it should be inflicted only when absolutely necessary, and it is absolutely necessary only when there is no other way to defend society from the offender. In the United States today, the adequacies of the penal system are such that an offender can be rendered harmless to the public without killing him. There is, therefore, no justification for capital punishment in the United States.  

It will be argued that putting a murderer to death will deter others from doing the same thing, and thus save innocent lives. But while it “might seem that the prospect of receiving a death sentence would deter would-be murderers from committing such offenses….many studies on deterrence and the death penalty do not support this idea, nor does the rate of murders in states with the death penalty. The murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is consistently lower than in states with the death penalty. The South, which carries out over 80% of the executions in the U.S., has the highest murder rate of the four regions.” [3] 

The existence of the death penalty certainly didn’t deter Mr. Tsarnaev. While being interrogated he “‘told the FBI that [he and his brother] were angry about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the killing of Muslims there.’” [4] According to John Miller, who served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before becoming a senior CBS correspondent, Mr. Tsarnaev, before his capture, and while he lied bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, wrote a note on the side of the boat in which he was hiding which said that the Boston “‘bombings were in retribution for the U.S. crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan [and] that the victims of the Boston bombing were collateral damage, in the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in U.S. wars around the world. Summing up, that when you attack one Muslim you attack all Muslims.’” [5] Terrorists like Mr. Tsarnaev aren’t deterred by the possibility of capital punishment. If anything, the potential of martyrdom provides an incentive for them.  

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev also has a right to life. Capital punishment in the United States should be abolished, even for murderers like him.   

Jack Quirk

Motherhood and Hard Cases

May 15, 2015

This Sunday (Mothers’ Day, coincidentally or not), a shocking juxtaposition appeared in my Facebook feed, of the kind that somehow compels some response, even as I wonder how I can have the audacity to say anything at all.  I suppose it’s because violence always deeply disturbs me, despite, or maybe because of, being so often at a loss.

Almost the first thing I saw was this petition from Amnesty International demanding an abortion for a 10-year-old rape survivor in Paraguay (a more complete story is here). My heart immediately broke for this girl – for the violence that has been done to her, and for the additional violence being suggested as the answer to the first.

Immediately beneath that was a story written for Feminists for Life by an adoptive mother whose daughter was born to a 13-year-old girl who had also conceived in rape.  For this birthmother, too, abortion was presented as the self-evident solution, but in the end it was the attempted abortion that was painful and traumatizing and the birth of her daughter that brought “unplanned joy.”  And not long after that, a similar story crossed my path in which another survivor writes powerfully about mothering as a means of reclaiming the violence done to her, without glossing over the difficulties.

The more hopeful stories like these demonstrate concretely both that there is indeed a better way than adding violence to violence, and that this message rings much truer when the difficulties that remain are acknowledged honestly.

There is a danger, in speaking of situations in which one has no personal involvement, of making any victim of violence a mere character in a drama of one’s own imagining, or worse, a political weapon – reduced, as one Paraguayan senator was quoted in the Washington Post article linked above, to a uterus and a birth canal.  In recognition of this I cannot prescribe with any real precision what is best for everyone, except to say that that question ought to be the starting point whatever the situation.

This is especially so whenever disregarding anyone’s inherent human dignity would appear to simplify things.  It may be tempting, on one side, to resort to that sort of reductionism, not only of prenatal life, but of the physical and psychological impact (to borrow an Amnesty spokeswoman’s phrasing) of abortion itself, not to mention how easily it can mask ongoing abuse.  On the other, it may be tempting to play the same zero-sum game by suggesting, as certain politicians have infamously done, that a woman who conceives by rape has not really been raped – which ends up being as egregious as the opposite claim that a child conceived by rape is not really a child.  Both of these reductions ultimately prove harmful to both lives in question by legitimizing the same deadly dichotomy (which I’ve written about before in another context) that assumes two acts that contribute to the same cycle of violence – in this case, rape and abortion – can’t both be wrong.

There is a similar danger of assuming more facts than one knows for ideological reasons.  Outside of Amnesty’s petition, the accuracy of its urgent portrayal of that particular health situation is unclear, but I am also wary of the temptation to make the same mistake by assuming the opposite in order to simplify an unthinkably tragic situation.  But whatever the particulars, from the standpoint of human dignity the presumption at the outset must be that there are two intrinsically valuable lives at stake.  This is presumed with much less controversy when none of the lives involved are at a stage where their humanity, and thus their worth, is called into question.  Would it even be possible to so cavalierly presume one of those lives to be intrinsically expendable once that person has been met face to face?

Of course, it would be difficult to imagine another kind of situation analogous to pregnancy in the extent to which two lives are so intimately, physically intertwined; the closest possible example I can think of might be that of conjoined twins.  It may be more uncontroversially humanizing to consider what measures would be thinkable in a difficult case if the baby were already born, but that would remove the complication that makes it so wrenchingly tempting to dehumanize in the first place.  In any case, the recognition of two lives, however intricately bound together under however harrowing circumstances, demands as a starting point the consideration of what is best for them both.

This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be tough calls to make, as there are in many health-related situations.  But if the Hippocratic oath means anything at all, the deliberate taking of a human life cannot be assumed to be the humane solution.

Julia Smucker

Julia Smucker writes for Vox Nova where this article also appeared.

Stop Privatizing War

May 13, 2015

The history of armed conflict from the earliest records to modern times has featured hired soldiers – mercenaries or forces loyal to a patron – that fight for pay or other rewards rather than for the cause of the combat. The United Nations Mercenary Convention (officially known as the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries) was ratified in 1989 and took force in 2001. Unfortunately, only 33 nations have signed the treaty and the United States is not one of them. [1] 

The preponderance of well-trained and experienced contracted forces employed by one side of a conflict, from ancient times to today, can clearly affect the outcome of conflict for those forces with the resources to pay private military contractors (PMCs) or mercenary bands. From Cyrus the Younger, who employed the rough-and-ready Greek “Ten Thousand” to unseat his brother Artaxerxes II from the Persian throne, to the Vatican’s famed Swiss Guard, and the multinational Flying Tigers who aided the Chinese in the early years of the Second World War, paid forces can mean success for those who pay the piper. [2]

Today private companies openly operate various kinds of military and security services to government agencies and organizations around the world. PMCs are typically employed today to train regular military forces or provide guard services to bases, installations, or as bodyguards for key personnel. In theory, providing these security personnel frees up the official military forces for more critical actions.

The United States uses PMCs too. But why are public dollars being spent to pay PMCs to perform roles that should be provided by the Department of Defense (DoD), which already receives $651 billion or 18% of the entire Federal Budget? [3]  

While some contractors may provide transportation, logistics, food service, and the like, others have been deployed to increase effective troop strength or otherwise take an active military role. Contractors are supposedly less expensive to a government agency than employees, because they are hired only to perform a particular task and are let go after that task is completed. Armed services personnel have to be equipped, are paid benefits, and can make use of Veterans Administration services. PMCs lower this overhead for the DoD by providing a workforce that has already been trained, and which supplies its own equipment. In paying less for private contractors then it would for military personnel the Pentagon is supposed to be saving money. But while American soldiers do receive a package of benefits that Americans in the private sector don’t usually receive, PMC employees receive, on average, a taxpayer-supported salary of $150,000 to $250,000, as compared to a miserly $19,000 for a soldier. [4] 

But according to Reuters, in June of 2011 the War on Terror had already cost the government $3.7 trillion. [5]  Up to that same year, at least $31 billion had been lost to contract waste and fraud according to the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC). [6] In the 1980s, during the Cold War, comedians and pundits drew gallows laughter from the public about how much the Pentagon had been spending on ordinary hammers and toilets to deal with the Communist threat. The contractors today selling a variety of military services, including PMCs, are caught up in waste on a scale so vast that the old seem quaint by comparison. In fact the Afghanistan Study Group reported that contractors were ripping off taxpayers to the tune of $12 million per day. [7] More worrisome, perhaps, than simple graft is the fact that contractors and PMCs have now become so ingrained in U.S. military operations that the CWC said that the DoD “cannot conduct large or sustained contingency operations without heavy support from contractors.” Could it be that the oft-quoted comments by former general and President Dwight Eisenhower about the future existence of a “military-industrial complex” have finally been fully realized? [8]
To be fair, life as a PMC on the front-lines is at least as dangerous as it is for the official armed forces. In fact, from January to June of 2010, more contractors than troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. [9]   That might be due to the fact that, according to DoD figures, contractors outnumbered troops from Fiscal Years 2008-2011 at approximately 190,000 contractors per year to about 175,000 military personnel. These numbers can vary, however, depending on who is counted as a contractor. [10] This has lead John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute to quip that George Bush’s original “coalition of the willing” has instead become a “coalition of the billing,” and these conditions have continued throughout the presidency of Barack Obama. [11]
Aside from the huge amounts of graft and the mismanagement of war zone projects, there has been a major cost to international relations and public perception in foreign countries. PMCs have frequently fallen short of military standards or have become embroiled in controversy. When the United States sends its armed forces into foreign conflicts, the American public should be able to trust that weapons are being carried by forces that are trained and accountable. If enemy combatants, and especially non-combatants, are killed, we need to know whether proper rules of engagement were employed. “It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the military commander to ensure contractor compliance,” said William L. Nash, a retired Army general and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If you're trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids; that’s not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren't going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier.” [12]   

Those fears proved to be well-founded when L. Paul Bremer, former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator in Iraq, specifically included PMCs among the forces that would receive immunity from that country’s laws if broken. [13]  As late as 2009 Amnesty International was calling upon then Attorney General Eric Holder to hold PMCs to several U.S. and international laws related to accountability, and suggested possible prosecution for war crimes committed by PMCs. [14]  Although PMCs have not been responsible for all of the misdeeds of American forces in the Middle East, they have been at the center of two of the most unpleasant incidents.

Employees of the now re-organized private security firm Blackwater Worldwide engaged in a wild mass shooting against unarmed Iraqi citizens in 2007 in which 17 were killed and nearly twice as many were injured. Last month, after a long legal fight, one contractor was sentenced to life in prison and three of his colleagues were given sentences of 30 years. [15] The Blackwater agents claimed their convoy had come under attack, but an investigation by the FBI found 14 of the 17 deaths unjustified and in violation of the rules of engagement. According to eyewitness testimony the PMCs unleashed sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers, killing women and children. Blackwater lost a contract worth $1 billion in the aftermath of the bloodbath in the Nisour Square traffic circle, but through the creation of multiple subsidiaries and shell companies still managed later to get portions of coveted contracts. [16]  

The widely reported mistreatment and torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison would not have been possible without the complicity of private contractor L-3 Services, Incorporated. Two years ago the company settled a suit brought by Iraqis at $5.8 million, but the effect of the mistreatment in foreign relations was far greater. [17]

Other incidents involving private companies’ employees have continued to crop up. A study in 2008 by the nonprofit RAND Corporation found that 35% of diplomats who had contacts with PMCs had to handle the consequences of ill-will that armed employees engendered in local populations. Further, 40% of these diplomatic personnel witnessed PMCs treating Iraqi citizens in a threatening, or arrogant manner. [18]

In addition to the early calls from Amnesty International about PMC oversight, a working group of the United Nations’ human rights office (OHCHR) stepped forward to praise the sentences in the Blackwater case. [19] Its chairwoman, Elzbieta Karska of Poland, said that “the difficulty in bringing a prosecution in this case shows the need for an international treaty to address the increasingly significant role that private military companies play in transnational conflicts.”

The Swiss government and the Red Cross have led a similar effort to adopt a world-wide body called the International Code of Conduct Association for PMCs to make sure companies are deploying forces that are well-trained and comply with standards. Other governments, non-governmental organizations, and industry representatives are taking part. [20] Still, it is a legitimate question whether industry involvement may prove too seductive for the public-sector representatives in the same way that the financial services industry has developed a too cozy relationship on the domestic front with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Any thought that a drawdown of contractors will coincide with the eventual decline and end to a U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other beachheads in the War on Terror is probably very naïve. According to Molly Dunigan at RAND, “[t]he private military and security industry is now incredibly large, powerful, and – perhaps most important – adaptable. Rather than scaling back, the industry is broadening its territory, expanding into maritime security, providing security to business and governments in Africa, and exploring other new markets.” [21]

Even when not on the frontlines of conflict, contractors comprise a worryingly outsized role in the United States intelligence community as well. According to author Dana Priest’s Top Secret America, private contractors make up 29% of the workforce of the 17 federal state security agencies, and cost the equivalent of 49% of their personnel budgets. [Priest, Dana (2011). Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Little, Brown and Company. p. 320. ISBN 0-316-18221-4] While it’s a separate argument, not under discussion in this article, whether the US intelligence services are too vast and encompassing for a democratic country, the involvement of thousands of non-government employees with questionable loyalties and access to sensitive material is a legitimate cause of concern.

U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has said that PMC sins “[demonstrate] the need for Congress to finally engage in responsible, serious and aggressive oversight over the questionable and growing U.S. practice of private military contracting.” [22] The U.S. Department of Defense should learn the painful lessons of their experience of wanton fraud and bad behavior by PMCs by returning to a purely support role for contractors. Until there are international standards in place to keep the burgeoning private mercenary business to an accountable code (if that can be done), no further deployment of armed irregulars in war zones should be allowed. Even if standards become binding, the utilization of PMCs in combat roles will always raise the specter that mercenaries are not observing, or not even required to follow, the rules and standards of the military.  Let us heed the wisdom of former President Eisenhower by not allowing a full-scale militarization of the nation by private industry.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.