Monday, February 28, 2011

BEHOLD THE WONDERS OF THE FREE MARKET

To do so, turn on your television, find your favorite news channel, and enjoy the views from the south side of the Deep South—white sands, blue water, and fluffy clouds in serene skies. Or take a Caribbean vacation—sightseeing, shell-collecting, sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, and seafood. Ah, yesterday. Now switch channels and witness an economic, heath, and environmental, disaster of unprecedented proportions developing daily on and off our southern shores. Oh, today.

First responses to a catastrophe with consequences lasting for decades seem to be partisan point-scoring, fingerpointing, and scapegoating. The usual suspects are greedy and deceitful oil companies, or corrupt or incompetent government agencies. Most people choose sides on the basis of their attitudes not only to the parties, but also to free markets and government regulations. In the debased vernacular of political discourse about economic topics, most people regard markets and regulations as existing in an either/or, not a both/and, relationship. Therein lies the problem.

Let me start with the obvious. “Free markets” are the spaces for transactions between a seller and a buyer. But to be “free,” like it or not, they must be fair. The old adage, “caveat emptor,” or “let the buyer beware,” recognizes that many transactions are not fair. So advanced economies have laws, regulations, and case laws to protect the buyer, and, as economies have grown in size and complexity, society and the environment. The fluctuating tension resulting from changing circumstances and evolving technologies underlies many controversies about the balance between markets and their regulation.

The tension in America reflects strong pro-business and widespread anti-government sentiments. Depending on political philosophy or expediency, politicians oppose or approve, shrink or expand, market restrictions. The result is imperfect markets because regulations do not exist, are small in scope or riddled with loopholes, or go unenforced.

Controversy erupts in the interplay of free markets and regulations in extractive energy industries, prominently including oil and gas, and coal, because they involve many people and much money. Both political parties shy from regulations protecting public as opposed to profitable interests until a disaster of large-scale death or destruction strikes. Then, in a spasm of publicized indignation, they pass legislation, walk away from their handiwork, and fail to oversee the enforcement and effects of regulation. The result is a market free of effective regulation. So “accidents” happen.

American free-markets balance this “bad” with “good” government intervention. Oil-and gas, and coal industry lobbyists play a double game by fighting restrictions on, but seeking assistance for, their companies. Although oil companies constitute most of the world’s ten largest companies and make huge profits, lobbyists urge that the industry needs help with its business. Both political parties believe that it is good to help the needy (who help them right back with campaign contributions). So both parties give oil companies what they want: support, subsidies (like caps on liability, which let companies budget limited costs of risking unlimited damage to everyone else), sole-source contracts (which inflate costs to the government), tax credits, and tax deductions (like oil depletion allowances, which save taxes on oil sold because someday it will run out and leave them with no more to sell). Today—fair is fair—the no-more-oil, alternative-energy industry wants help with its business, so it too lobbies for and receives support, subsidies, credits, and deductions. As a result, the government spends tax dollars on both the fossil-fuel energy industry and the alterative-energy industry, and Americans pay higher-than-otherwise taxes as fees for a “free market.”

My free-market/regulation position is simple. No direct or indirect government transfers of tax–payer assistance from public to private sectors (lower taxes, anyone?). Government regulation of the financial industry by all means and to the extent necessary to prevent collapses, without protection afforded equityholders. Government regulation to promote fair transactions, protect the safety and health of people, preserve the environment, and hold companies accountable for consequences of their actions.

In this vein, Louisiana’s governor commented that one of the two industries—oil and gas, and fishing—on which his state has long relied killed the other. Only a hard-core believer in capitalism’s “creative destruction” could admire the destruction wrought in the Caribbean, an admiration likely abated after a face-to-face, or fist-to-face, argument with those whose living depends on clean Gulf waters.

Given the nature, size, and scope of oil-and-gas and coal-mining operations, only the federal government has the capability to reduce the risks of damage and destruction, provide help, and offer the means of recovery and remedy. We may resent government regulation, but we cannot allow private companies to turn oceans into toxic cesspools, and mountains and valleys into barren moonscapes. So we must not prevent the government from regulating to protect the public interest, and people or companies from each other, between catastrophes; and then, when disaster strikes, complain about, or criticize, it when we the people have hampered its ability to do its job.

Monday, February 7, 2011

MASKING THE TRUTH ABOUT MOSQUES

The media have recently broadcast comments or published articles, columns, and letters about the so-called “New York mosque.” Most opposing its construction on the approved site reflect or exploit election-year Islamophobia. Some reflect or appeal to the continuing discomfort or hostility of those who believe that Obama is a Muslim. Such emotions explain the incidence and intensity of false claims and fallacious arguments expressing these writers’ opposition.

One column cannot defuse or dissipate such irrationality and intemperance, but I hope that a reasoned rebuttal can help the undecided, if there are any, consider the controversy more carefully and compassionately.

The most common error is the mischaracterization of this proposed 13-story Islamic community center with its top two floors dedicated to worship, as a mosque. Community centers, Christian and Jewish, with rooms set aside for prayer, exist throughout the United States, and no one calls them churches and temples. Shame on the media for perpetuating this mischaracterization which prompts widely repeated false assertions and flimsy logic.

Opponents frequently asperse the honesty of the Cordoba Initiative’s Imam’s or its website statements of purpose. Many simply deny that the claims that Muslims seek and have sought for centuries “interfaith tolerance and respect.” Those who go beyond mere counter-assertions misrepresent the historical record by disregarding, distorting, or denying facts; taking them out of context; or applying a double standard to them. So the honesty of opponents more than the honesty of proponents is in question. In truth, the history of both Christianity and Islam are replete with abusive behavior false to their ideals, but most accusations against Islam apply at least equally to Christianity.

“Cordoba” leads opponents to consider Islamic Spain and rewrite its history as an example showing that neither peace nor prosperity prevailed under Muslim rule. On the contrary, after Muslim Arabs and Berbers defeated and evicted Christian Visigoths, Muslims and Jews lived in comity and comfort. Jews were second-class citizens liable to mild discrimination and modest taxes, but Muslims let Jews practice their religion and participate in the economy and the government. Together, in the period known as the “Golden Age,” they developed a state in which both prospered and the arts flourished.

By contrast, the history of Spain after the Christian reconquest is one of religious intolerance and national economic and cultural impoverishment. By expelling Muslims and Jews, its fanatical Catholic government ruined the economy, relied on colonial exploitation in the Western Hemisphere to prop it up, and precipitated Spain’s decline.

Opponents apply a double standard to criticize Muslims for their practice of building their mosques over destroyed churches—a criticism curiously irrelevant to a community center built blocks away from destroyed commercial buildings. Christians do the same thing. (In fact, the practice goes back to the dawn of history.) In England, Christianity built churches on Druid religious sites. Las Cruceans probably know something about the Spanish Conquistadors’ and the Catholic Church’s practice of building churches on Inca, Aztec, and Pueblo religious sites—not to mention horrific massacres, enslavement, and forced conversation of indigenous people. One exception, honored as such, was Diego de Vargas, who, in re-conquering New Mexico in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, negotiated more than fought with the Indians, and, successful, prohibited slavery, did not destroy kivas, and tolerated dual worship.

Christianity perhaps more than Islam has a record of intolerance and hostility to those not only of other faiths, but also among its sects. Unlike Islam, Christianity has a long history of theologically rationalized segregation, persecution, impoverishment, and murder of Jews. Catholics reconquering Spain forced their conversion or expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition, though originating in the Albigensian Crusade fomented by the Catholic Church against French heretics known as Cathars, established its torments for use against Jews, then against perceived enemies elsewhere. The Counter-Reformation pitted Catholics against Protestants in decades-long wars; the English Civil War pitted Puritans against Anglicans. The purpose of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion aimed to prevent Christian sectarian hatred and conflict.

Another objection to an Islamic community center two blocks from, and out of sight of, Ground Zero is that it signals to radical Muslims a “victory” mosque memorializing a military triumph. The objection is absurd. Islam has no such mosques (as Christianity has no such churches), and no one should care how a few fanatics interpret the nature or location of this building. But everyone should care about Al Qaeda’s message to the large majority of non-fanatical Muslims: America’s anti-Islamic hysteria in attacking Islamic institutions shows its hypocrisy and hostility; America has no freedom of religion and is making war on Islam.

No one should argue that Islamophobes should not exercise their right to free speech. But everyone else should expect them to be as responsible to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in exercising this right as they are reckless in seeking to deny the right to freedom of religion and its exercise by others.