Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Are the Issues?

The top five TV political reporters have asked the presidential candidates 2938 questions so far. One would hope that the topics covered reflect a wide array of the issues important to the future of America. Three of those questions have been about unidentified flying objects. Given the large number of questions, a few light-hearted questions raised by a revelation about one of the candidate's experience with UFOs might be excused. But what is the excuse for the number of questions about global warming being only one more? That's right, only four questions have been asked about an issue that many would agree is one of the most important issues that will be faced by the next president.

The war in Iraq and terrorism are two high-profile issues that have rightly garnered a great deal of attention this presidential election. But even those who doubt the predictions of scientists can hardly claim that care of the environment is not a vital issue to address in the next four years, for what we do in the short term will clearly affect the long term. The issue of global poverty is another example of a sleeping giant issue. Today, every three seconds a child will die from extreme poverty - either because they don't have enough food, don't have access to clean water, or have been stricken by an entirely treatable condition like diarrhea, measles or malaria. Aside from a moral mandate to act, since it is clearly within the power of the United States to end this crisis, enlightened self-interest would lead us to end extreme poverty before it becomes the motivation from more desperate acts of terrorism.

One moral issue that the candidates have been pressed on is health care. Each of the major candidates has a plan to address the delivery of health care in this country. Unfortunately, for the most part the issue has been addressed only as it effects individual Americans' budgets. The real question of whether profit has any ethical justification in health care, or anyplace in Human Services for that matter, is not on the table. Any health care insurance company trying to make a profit must minimize paying settlements to do so. How can that delivery model benefit anyone but the stockholders? The bottom like is that the bottom line seems to be considered more vital that the preservation of life.

The media has a vested interest in tension and conflict, thus any animated emotions from candidates will steal attention away from the issues. Thankfully, there is enough information available from each of the campaigns through their local offices and the Internet that there is no reason for any voter being uninformed. Here in Massachusetts we will be part of “Super Tuesday” on February 5 when we go to the polls. While those registered in a political party can only vote in that party's primary, unenrolled voters will have the choice of taking a Republican, Democratic, or Green-Rainbow ballot. Don't give away your power by staying home. Get informed and get out and vote.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Finding Common Ground on Abortion

Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the debate over the legality of abortion is arguably more divisive now than it was then. For many years now, this has been a wedge issue used to divide politicians and the electorate by requiring polar opposites, absolute agreement with no shades of gray. With its focus on the issue of legality, the abortion debate has become one of determining permissible times and methods instead of working to reduce the number of abortions, surely something that could not offend either side of the argument.

In the highly politicized rhetoric, pro-choice politicians sound disingenuous when they add “and rare” to their calls to keep abortions safe and legal. If pro-choice leaders truly desire that abortions should be rare while they remain legal, they should be eager to support legislation like that introduced by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a member of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus almost a year ago. That bill was designed to provide contraception education as well as support for new mothers and resources for foster care and adoption. That, and similar legislation currently are referred to committees.

Likewise, pro-life politicians rarely call for a reduction in the number of abortions instead taking an all-or-nothing approach that has the effect of allowing preventable abortions now while hoping for an end to all abortion later. Additionally, the belief that overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion in America ignores the fact that it would return abortion to an issue fought in each state and conveniently forgets the history of back-alley and foreign abortions that happened prior to the court ruling.

A truly comprehensive pro-life stand would also take into consideration the quality of life for the newborn whose mother chose not to abort. In his book, "Our Endangered Values,” Jimmy Carter writes, "Two thirds of women who have abortions claim their primary reason is that they cannot afford a child." He cites statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and their latest report [2002], "The most prevailing common factor is poverty, with six out of ten abortions occurring among those with incomes below $28,000 per year for a family of three." A comprehensive plan to alleviate poverty would have the added benefit of reducing a significant factor contributing to the rate of abortions.

We should not allow medical, ethical and religious issues regarding such things as determining when life begins, or when a fetus is viable to distract us from the practical ways we can reduce abortions today. The vision of a day when every child is a wanted child, who has equal access to opportunity is one that both sides of this polarized debate ought to be able to embrace.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An Unhappy Anniversary

This past Friday marked the sixth anniversary or the first prisoners of the war on terror being detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The peculiar arrangement of a United States military facility that is not considered US soil has created a cruel limbo for those who have been imprisoned there. They are subject to the whims of their captors without any recourse to law. None of them have been tried or even charged. In the cases where there has been any access to legal representation, they have been released.

Adding insult to injury, on the day of the anniversary, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled three Muslim British humanitarian workers and a religious pilgrim captured in Afghanistan and detained in Guantanamo Bay prison were non-persons. The implications of considering anyone legally a non-person are staggering. With no human rights, even the hope of protection is gone. The only way even to begin to suggest that this behavior is acceptable on our behalf by our government is to firmly believe that these detainees represent the true “evil-doers” and thus argue that that they deserve whatever treatment may come from those they've harmed or threaten to harm. But honoring democracy demands that the people be informed when the government acts on their behalf. In six years, when have we been told what evil the detainees are even suspected of? How can it be that a democracy can choose to treat anyone as a non-person when no public case has been made? This is the sort of behavior expected of banana republic dictators who “disappear” their opponents. This is the sort of alleged justice of vigilantism, only in this case a secretive group within our own government are the vigilantes.

This administration has shown not only a disdain for the justice system and the rule of law, but also a lack of trust in the judgment of the American people. Why must we trust that they are protecting us from unseen harm instead of exposing to the light of truth what they have done on our behalf? There are certainly good reasons for clandestine investigations that require secrecy while they are on-going, but one might expect that in the course of six years of hard work fighting terrorism that there would be multiple success stories that could now be shared to reassure the people who are being terrorized. And isn't that the point of terrorism, that we be frightened? What has this administration done to reduce fear? The practices of detaining without charges, declaring people non-persons, removing suspects to places where legal protections don't exist and there torturing them provides no comfort to the fearful. As a matter of fact, the thought that it could happen to anyone at any time increases fear while providing no measurable security beyond that which the government alleges. Additionally, the image of America in the eyes of the world is diminished. We no longer have the right to call for justice when we act so unethically. There is no justification, only excuses.

Monday, January 07, 2008

What's the Value of a Tree?

On the first episode of the short-lived television series, Joan of Arcadia, Joan has an encounter with a young man whom she comes to realize is God in the flesh. She tries putting him on the spot by asking, “So how about a miracle?” In response, the young man points to a tree and simply says, “There.” “But that is just a tree,” says the unimpressed Joan. She is silenced by the reply, “You try making one.”

The simple truth sounds cliché, only God can make a tree. Don't mistake this for an argument for Intelligent Design; regardless of the origin of species, mere mortals remain incapable of creating from nothing. This helps to frame one of the glaring problems in environmental protection, the fact that a tree has no economic value left on its own. The only time a dollar amount is attached is when calculating its value once cut an processed as lumber. The value of a stand of trees, or a wetland, or a barrier island does not lie just in their potential for development, or even for recreational use. The only cost effective machines for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen are green plants. If we were to develop every square inch of land, we would also have to develop technology to produce oxygen. What would that technology cost? Calculate that and you begin to have a figure to use when considering the value of untouched natural resources. And that's just part of the value. Vegetation provides natural erosion control, wetlands purify water, and barrier islands protect the mainland from coastal storms. When gone, human efforts to provide the same services always prove to be exorbitantly expensive. This is why the time has come to stop thinking of nature as resource and start considering it as capital.

In an April 2007 report, “Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital: An Assessment of the Economic Value of the State’s Natural Resources,” the value of the goods and services provided by the state's natural capital is estimated at a minimum of $20 billion annually. That places the value of the state's total natural capital at $681 billion (the amount needed to be invested at 3% to produce the annual yield). The authors are confident that the estimates are conservative. These are numbers that don't normally enter into economic discussions. But there is an ethical imperative to consider the value of creation as is. As the saying goes, good planets are hard to find. We are seeing the limits of limiting our understanding of creation solely in terms of the teaching of the book of Genesis that humans are to subdue it. We need to balance that with the equally biblical teaching that all the earth belongs to God. Life is a loan, not a grant. Whether your faith is in the God of creation or the wisdom of science (or both), we all need to begin to find our place in the web of life and live accordingly.