U. S. Supreme Court
U. S. Supreme Court




In the past few days since President Obama stated that he would use “empathy” as one criterion for selecting a candidate for the U. S. Supreme Court, negative responses have flooded the media.

            President Obama talking in press conference about selecting a Supreme Court Justice gave his criteria as: sharp and independent mind; honors the constitution; respects the judicial process; and holds the judicial values upon which the country was founded. Then he mentioned an additional consideration: empathy.

            Almost immediately political pundits on television screamed: “empathy is a codeword for social engineering.” Senator Orin Hatch said empathy is a codeword for “activist judge.” And Fox’s Laura Ingraham  even said “Empathy is a loopy qualification for a Supreme Court judge.”

            Comedians Colbert and Stewart gave the most penetrating perspective about the controversy on all of television this past week.      Stephen Colbert deduced from all the television verbiage that empathy must be code for “drug-addled evolutionist with swine flu.” And Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in essence concluded that loopy, conservative pundits wore hearing aids that only said “abortion, abortion, abortion” whenever Obama spoke about judicial appointments.

            Blogs and newspaper opinion pieces, at the rate of about 10 to 1, have dumped on empathy as an acceptable characteristic for a Supreme Court judge. Just like television, conservative politicians ridiculed the President in writing, claiming that empathy is a mere codeword for pro-choice and anti-guns. Writer after writer parroted the claim that empathy is the polar opposite of fairness and the rule of law.

            Nothing could be further from the truth.

            Look up empathy in the dictionary and you will find it defined as simply the awareness of the feeling and situation of others. In essence, it is “putting yourself in another’s shoes.”


An Empathic Community
An Empathic Community



Isn’t it reasonable to expect anyone making decisions that affect other people to use empathy as well as reason and law in their decision-making? Of course, it is what makes us human. Making friends and building community are not possible without empathy.

            If people don’t use empathy in their dealings with other people, we call them psychopathic, severely retarded, autistic, or in some other way impaired. Are those the kind of people the nation wants on the highest judicial bench in the land?

             Some opponents of empathy in the Court fear that fairness would be sacrificed because special interests (for example, the poor and oppressed) would be served. But empathy is like freedom, a fundamental value in its own right. Both freedom and empathy can be applied in the extreme. Valuing freedom to an excess might lead a judge to free all prisoners. By the same (politically conservative) logic, we should then not appoint a judge who believes in freedom.

            From our judges, no matter how high or lowly their position, we should expect not only great skill in interpreting constitutional law, but deep caring about both sides in a trial. We should expect not just deep respect for the original intentions of the law, but a thorough understanding of contemporary society.

            Every great spiritual leader has promoted empathy and compassion. Jesus Christ devoted his entire life to promoting his philosophy that conforming to the letter of the law was not nearly as important as “loving your neighbor as yourself,” “loving your enemies,” and “if anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles.” The essence of the foundation of Christianity is empathy, compassion, and altruism. Without the reformation of empathy started by Jesus Christ, our judges might today still sentence an unfaithful wife to death by stoning.
            The rhetoric of those with antipathy toward empathy, when analyzed carefully, reveals a false dichotomy over the ideal of impartiality and the ideal of empathy for the disadvantaged. Empathy antagonists admit that pure impartiality is not attainable but striving for it is the ultimate attribute.

            This blind justice argument reveals “black and white” thinking. One flaw in their presumption is that there is always one right answer. The second flaw is that by blind folding our judges, we keep them from observing reality.

Blind Justice
Blind Justice







            If our chief justices are blindfolded, how can they see things like the fourth branch of government, the lobbying sector? This fourth branch, with budgets in the billions of dollars, writes legislation, shapes public opinion, and pressures every other branch of government. Read John Gresham’s The Appeal for a glimpse of how money and power buys not only influence but also actual judges. Yes, it is fiction but based upon actual situations. The authors of the constitution never envisioned this fourth branch. Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post in his 2009 book, So Damn Much Money, calls it the “The Scandal of our Time.” Shouldn’t our courts keep this extremely powerful force from undermining equal justice for all?

            The sad consequence of bashing empathy is that American children will learn that empathy is bad. They already learn to minimize empathy by competing in sports and electronic war games. If they also hear from America’s leaders and pulpits that empathy should be shunned, the fabric of American society will fray, perhaps irreparably.

            From the very beginning, this nation depended upon empathy and community as neighbors chipped in to build a newcomer’s house.  Without empathy, the American character erodes to self-centered insensitivity to others and their plight.

            People should debate Obama’s choices to the Supreme Court, but they should not blindfold themselves to the harm they create by debunking empathy.


Hoards of pundits and experts argue over what to call our current recession, which began as a crisis in finance. Arguments will continue because whether the recession is really a depression, cannot be determined until more time has passed.

            When I first heard our current recession referred to as “Great Depression II” and “GP II,” I thought “How apt but unacceptable.”  But today when I Goggled the phrase (in quotes), 56,000 hits appeared. Not surprisingly, the term “recession” appears 100 times more often. I will use the term recession and “deep recession“ even though history may eventually call it “Great Depression II.”

The typical comments on the web about the effects of the recession can best be described as stories of stress, pain, fear and suffering. Their missives are social tragedies because they are stories of parents struggling to find food for hungry children and of breadwinners getting laid off. They are stories of the inability to pay for medical treatment, which lays the pathway to early death, just like the third world.

            Early Americans believed that pain, hunger, and suffering lead to strong character and close communities. But now contemporary Americans seem to view “suffering” as eating at home rather than going out; or as taking a vacation by car instead of jetting to the Caribbean.  

time-the-new-frugality-cover_resize            Time Magazine splashed “The New Frugality” as its cover story this week. The story claimed that the “Great Recession” is transforming how we spend, whom we trust, where we save and what we really value.” Time had just conducted a scientific, nationwide survey that found half of the public admitting to feeling hardship in general. Nearly a quarter had been unemployed not by choice. And, of course, we are spending less, at least on the nonessentials.


         The most remarkable finding by the Time survey was that nearly two thirds “predict they’ll continue to spend less than they did before.” Even people earning more than $100,000 a year were talking about how they spent less, especially on luxury items.

            On the basis of all of these types of findings, journalists tend to claim that the recession is affecting everyone. The truth is that the lifestyles of the super-wealthy remain basically unchanged, while the middle and poverty classes are struggling with day to day subsistence.

New national survey findings by the Pew Research Center Trends project were released as Luxury or Necessity? The Public Makes a U-Turn.  Here is a synopsis of their discovery about how American adults are adapting to the economic depression:

·         Over the past few decades, Americans have been increasingly viewing all home appliances as necessities rather than luxuries. All of a sudden in the past 4 months that trend has reversed. Now we are less likely to view microwaves, home air conditioning, dishwashers, and clothes dryers as necessities. Already in 4 months these appliances have lost 10 years worth of growth in their perception as necessities.

·         Eight-in-ten adults have taken specific steps of one kind or another to economize during these bad times. Almost six-in-ten say they are shopping more in discount stores or are passing up name brands in favor of less expensive varieties

·         One-in-five adults say they are following the example of first lady Michelle Obama and are making plans to plant a vegetable garden to save money on food

·         Consumer reaction to the recession is being driven by specific personal economic hardships as well as by a more pervasive new creed of thrift that has taken hold both among those who’ve been personally affected and those who haven’t.

·         Nearly half say they or another household member has lost more than 20% in a retirement account or other investments.

·         About two-in-three American families have faced major economic problems such as loss of a job, major loss of investments, or trouble with mortgage payments in the past year.

·         Children, young adults, women and the less affluent are the most likely to have been troubled or to face tragedy.  


Taken as a whole these findings allow us to confirm that small shifts values have occurred within the American public, and perhaps around the world. That change consists of dropping or chipping away at materialistic, consumption values. high-price-of-materialism_resize

For those like Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, this must be good news. Although the Pew survey’s discovered a drop in the perceived meaning and value of major consumer items, the small drop may be finicky rather than long lasting, and superficial rather than deep.

            Last month the Archbishop of Canterbury proclaimed that the recession had challenged the common belief that material possessions lead to contentment.  On Easter Sunday, he preached for voluntary limits on “human acquisitiveness and sexual appetite.” I don’t know how sex slipped into hissermon, but let’s not get into psychoanalysis.

            The important point he made is that contemporary society promotes harmful social values of excessive acquisition of a many nonessentials. These values have blinded us from observing the harm we do to the environment and our great insensitivity to the subsistence suffering of millions of people in American and around the world. This is a failing not just of Catholics, but also of people of every form of religion and non-religion.



            Have you noticed that people only give economic explanations for the current economic crisis? Well, actually a few people give non-economic explanations, like greed, for instance.

            Likewise, in trying to predict our economic future, have you noticed that mostly the arguments are grounded in economics, politics, and a little bit of psychology?

            Put on a lens of a sociologist or anthropologist for a few moments to see things a bit differently. Enter, Karen Ho, an anthropology professor at the U of M. Dr. Ho got a job on Wall Street in an investment bank for nearly a year in order to study the culture and organization of Wall Street, particularly with regard to dealing with financial crises.

            You can read some of her views in a Star Tribune interview, and a more in-depth analysis of her research in the academic journal, Cultural Anthropology (Vol. 20, #1, pp. 68-96, 2005). Or you can wait for her book to be published in July 2009.

            In her article, her interviews and public presentations, Karen Ho gives a compelling description of how Wall Street (the network of financial institutions) beginning about 1980, transformed and dominated American business by successfully campaigning for what she calls a “culture of liquidity,” by which she means organizational turnover and instability. A common tactic was takeover in order to liquidate a company’s assets. She concludes that Wall Street, with the control of capital, forced American businesses to continually restructure, downsize, outsource, and otherwise focus on short term planning, and the bottom line.

            Furthermore, Wall Street followed its own liquidity prescription for American business. In addition, Wall Street in its excitement took the primrose but deadly path of hedge funds, derivatives, securitizations, credit default swaps, and other elements of shadow banking.

            In her scenario, little by little the global economic system bought into the Wall Street model, seduced by the overvalued financial instruments and financial culture that appeared to be economic nirvana. Wall Street shadow banks marketed giant ponzi schemes and the remainder of the world didn’t want to lose out on the party.

            The tragedy of the culture of liquidity was the corporate sell off and neglect of organizational capital, human capital, research and development, and other resources with long-term value.

            Her view, and I subscribe to it, is that Wall Street has left us with a bankrupt financial sector and ailing manufacturing industries with greatly eroded capacity and value. Professor Karen Ho points out that companies like GM were the darling of Wall Street while they were downsizing, buying mortgage businesses, and designing bigger and bigger SUVs. GM and other such American businesses are now left with a relatively uneducated, poorly skilled workforce, and little capacity to innovate.

            The state of education and job training in American cannot be blamed on corporate America alone.  The politics of unequal, discriminatory financing of K-12 education have done much to hold it hostage, while the quality of learning in our trading-partner nations improves.

            Karen Ho does not argue this, but I think it follows that to compete in the global economy over the long-term, Americans and American businesses need a financial 12-step program to overcome addiction to self-centered consumption and investment growth-at-any-cost.

            Corporate America needs some time to reflect on what it can do best, do it with impeccable quality, and give good jobs and benefits to as many Americans as possible. Corporate America cannot do that with Wall Street breathing down its neck, so to speak. From their self-serving behavior in the past six months, it is clear that neither Wall Street nor Corporate America will reform on their own. It is up to the Federal Government to exert new leadership.

            Ironically, the Secretary of the Treasury for the first two years of the last Bush Administration, Paul O’Neill, holds a similar view of the Wall Street. On CNN’s GPS Program he recently called for truth and transparency on Wall Street. He would order the top 19 financial institutions to put the ratings classes of all their assets on the Internet for the public to see. He then would create quarantine accounts for the bad assets, only allowing public funds to be spent on the non-quarantined assets.

            Even if such reforms were made, the road to recovery will be rocky because we have come to expect the material comforts of living in financial bubbles. As millions of pensions have been converted to individual 401k accounts, the majority of Americans have a finger in Wall Street. Even if our daily moods don’t swing with the markets, we still pray for our retirement accounts to soar again.

            How then do we get out of the spiraling culture of corporate liquidity?  Establishing a modern, effective regulation system and other reforms in Washington DC will help. However, it is doubtful that we can successfully complete its financial addiction recovery program without learning to live with less, without accepting the need to sacrifice for the greater good. It is the perfect time to study Marc Lesser’s 2009 book, Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less.

            Those with jobs and a retirement fund can afford to allow the economy to slowly recover from its ailments. But those unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise suffering from the lack of means to acquire necessities, cannot afford the luxury of a long, slow recovery. The rest of us must empathize with them and be generous, both personally and through public policy.

            For long-term prosperity, we need to work for the economy to stabilize itself without depending on another big bubble. This is the time to re-define patriotism to include sacrifice, modest lifestyles, and acting as a “Good Samaritan” to those around the world who are truly in pain and suffering.

            Should you be skeptical of my advice on returning to the ethics of the Good Samaritan, read the wonderful 2008 book by Deborah Stone, The Samaritan’s Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor? Professor of government Deborah Stone began advocating for an altruistic government long before the latest financial bubble burst. With the deep recession leaving so many jobless, hungry, and otherwise suffering, her powerful call for a moral awakening is even more urgent.




dsc_2214While writing this I am listening to the gentle ocean surf under a bright blue sky.  My wife and I are enjoying a lovely 2009 Valentine’s Day, along with hundreds of other Americans, some of whom came to get married on the sand to the gentle rhythm of the breakers and Reggae music in the distance.

        I heartily recommend a Valentine vacation in Montego Bay to every American, but don’t wait very many years because Jamaica may become something like a province of China.

        The headlines of the local papers in Montego Bay blasted the news of China’s Vice President Xi Jinping visit to celebrate China’s grants and loans of $140 million (USD) to Jamaica. Shovel in hand VP Xi announced China’s gift of a new convention center. China aid to Jamaica far exceeds American aid this year.

        At the very time that the USA cannot afford the luxury of lavish foreign aid, China steps in and helps out our trading partners, as if they were altruistic and just trying to help. China, like America, tends to attach strings to its aid. The strings are trade obligations and implied allegiance.

        Our current financial collapse stems from overdependence of the US economy on financial services rather than manufacturing and knowledge production. Financial services have, in turn, been over dependent on public addiction to needless consumption. Through all of this financial debauchery, China has been standing nearby like a bartender serving us drinks and taking our money.

As of this past November, China held almost $700 billion dollars in securities of the US government debt.  Foreign countries own $3 trillion of the U.S. treasury, but China owns more of that than any other country.

With our economy teetering on the brink, aid to developing countries inevitably will take a hit at budget time. It is a wonderful time for China to fill the gap and build “partnerships” with nations in our “backyard.” Jamaica is only a hundred miles from both Cuba and Haiti, and about 300 miles from Florida.

It would be a mistake not to note the long history of the Chinese in Jamaica. In the late 19th Century as thousands of slaves were shipped from Africa, a large number of Chinese were imported as indentured servants. Now Jamaica has an estimated Chinese population of 70,000.

China’s cozy foreign policy with the Caribbean since 1990 is no secret. Not only have the Chinese acquired important natural resources like asphalt from the region but they have had several military exercises there as well. China is Cuban largest trading partner apart from Venezuela. Caribbean nations see China as an alternative to heavy dependence upon the United States.

Fortunately, America sends more than tourists to Jamaica. The Peace Corps has sent 3,400 volunteers to Jamaica and over 100 are now stationed there. They continue to do wonderful things for the Jamaican economy, but they are not as visible as a convention center. Nor are they a match for the thousands of guns donated and sold by the United States to Jamaica and Haiti. In one year, 1999, alone, the USA sold Jamaica $5 million in military equipment.

If we want to preserve the beautiful vacation opportunities for Americans in Jamaica, we should stop the flow of guns and ratchet up the flow of Peace Corps projects ten-fold. Jamaica is in our own backyard, not China’s.



Moments ago President Obama announced several new rules for executive compensation for any corporations receiving “exceptional” amounts of public funds. One rule is that executive pay is capped at $500,000 and their stock options cannot be cashed in until every penny of public money has been repaid. Third, he said executive pay and perks would be public

            While the President did not describe the current executive culture as greedy, he did call it shameful in no uncertain terms. He also used the words “culture of narrow self-interest.” Is it not greed when executives pay themselves many millions and even billions while simultaneously their corporations implode financially and thousands of lower level employees are fired?

            The dictionaries generally agree: greed is an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves.  Last year’s book Richistan, which I reviewed in a earlier post, describes a greed-driven social class of the newly, ultra-rich. An estimated 10 million Americans belong to this social class, some of whom like Madoff ran billion dollar fraudulent schemes, unable to control addiction to money and ultra rich lifestyles.

            The lucky rich, as I dubbed them, are not the only greed-driven Americans. Greed appears to have clouded the judgment of millions of Americans who signed for mortgages they could not afford or put tens thousands of dollars on their credit cards.

            So, greed may be the most succinct lens to view the current financial crisis. Not only does it help to explain why it happened, but it suggests a way to get out of it. Continued acquisition of material goods and services that are not essential would stabilize the economy. It would not return us to the previous growth in GDP, but it would be the foundation for a culture and an economic foundation that emphasizes productivity and social well-being. It would be a society oriented toward the future not immediate gratification.

            This model of society is highly compatible with President Obama’s goals for our country. In his Chicago acceptance speech he advocated a society where we “look out for others as well as ourselves.” Now, that is a recipe to avoid falling into the pernicious pit of greed. And it applies equally to bailed out corporate executives as well as the rest of us.  

Most view the current global economic crisis as simply an economic crisis, but the secondary effects may be much broader. As noted in my blog post “Social Loss for Job Loss,” loss of social capital (empowerment from participation in community and civic affairs) tends to follow job loss in early or mid-career. The unemployed person loses social capital, not so much from the community being weaker, but from personally dropping out of participation in community.  

            Sociological research among 99 randomly selected small towns in Iowa found that loss of social capital not only results from loss of jobs, but also a variety of other negative economic shocks. These economic crises in small towns may include a plant closing, a school closing, toxic environmental contamination, or a natural disaster.

            Sociologists Terry Besser, Nicholas Recker, and Kerry Agnitsch of Iowa State University studied nearly 100 small towns in 1993 and again in 2004. The results of their study were published in the academic journal Rural Sociology in December 2008 (73, 4, December, pp. 580-604). They documented the loss of social participation, and social capital more broadly, tended to follow negative economic shocks. Furthermore, they found that the loss of social capital was greater the greater, the stronger and more frequent the shocks.

            Besser, Recker and Agnitsch also found that economic crises were more detrimental when the shock exposed differences of values within the community regarding appropriate economic response. Examples of value conflicts include using tax incentives to attract a controversial factory or termination of welfare benefits for a given class of citizens. Perhaps most remarkable was their finding that a series of small shocks produced as much damage on a town’s social quality of life as did a single, large shock.

            Some make folk-wisdom claims that “hardship builds character” and “failure offers the foundation for success.” This occasionally may be true for individuals, but this research does not provide evidence that financial crises helps communities.

            What we face now is a gigantic national and global economic shock. This shock is a jolt of such mammoth proportions that the social effects may be best described as a sociological disaster or social tsunami. That does not mean that we cannot learn a great many things from it. Hopefully economists and political leaders will remember the implications of the current financial crisis for many generations to come.

One of the most important scientific findings by sociologists is that people who lose their jobs during the prime of their careers end up also losing a lot of social capital (less involvement in their communities). Such a loss is tragic not only for those unintentionally unemployed, but for their communities and societies as well.

            In my last posting, I asked the question: “Where are the sociologists in a time of financial crisis?” I found a major study that shows the type of research that can be done by sociologists to help us evaluate the full impact of the current economic crisis.

            Jennie Brand, assistant professor of sociology at UCLA, earned her PhD at the University of Wisconsin and carefully analyzed data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. In her article with Sarah Burgard, which was published in the September, 2008 issue of Social Forces, she confirmed that job loss produced major drops in social capital, that is, the ability to use ties to other people to help them and others function more effectively.

            Specifically, this loss of social capital meant that people displaced from their jobs in early or mid-career became less likely to be able to network to get another job, but also to get and give social support in general.

            Jennie Brand’s study involved workers during the period of 1975 to 2004, so it does not include those unemployed during the 2008 economic crisis. And it also was limited to high school graduates, but despite these limitations, the study gives very generalizable findings because it was based upon systematically following and re-surveying many people for many years.

            The crisis in community involvement is more sociological than psychological. It consists of changes in people’s inter-connectedness to other people. Think of it as rips in the social fabric.

            During the past year, 1.9 million Americans lost their jobs, with 533,000 losing them last month. That is the largest loss of jobs in any one month since 1974, according to the BLS report. The percent underemployed now is 12.5%. The underemployed are those who are unemployed or working part-time but seeking full-time work, but not including those unemployed but no longer looking for work. Another way of looking at the situation is that one in eight American workers is partly or fully displaced from their jobs.

            The principal conclusion from all of these data is that not only will the period ahead be one of financial crisis but one of social crisis as well.

During the past year 1.9 million Americans lost their jobs, with almost a third of those losing them last month. When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released these numbers this week, one of the Bureau’s commissioners said the report was probably the most negative report in BLS’s 124 year history.  

          Meanwhile this year over 2 million houses went into foreclosure. Many of those losing their homes did not lose their jobs; they were at least somewhat fortunate. But the firings and foreclosure together affected over 3 million workers.

          In the past year while the stock markets fell by nearly 50%, my retirement savings dropped 25%. I would imagine that most sociologists felt equivalent personal financial losses this year. Even those putting their savings in “fixed income” retirement funds have lost money because of the collapse of the bond markets.

          Despite the huge magnitude of this economic trauma, sociologists appear to be silent about the financial crisis. The American Sociological Association’s newsletter, Footnotes, has not mentioned the crisis nor is it a special topic of the forthcoming annual convention. It is even scarcely mentioned in Contexts magazine’s blogs. Isn’t there a big enough hurt yet to talk about?

          This month, after economists have begun comparing our current financial crisis to the great depression, the government finally admitted that the United States economy was in a recession. Ironically, they also added that we had been in a state of economic recession for 12 months.

          Sociologists, like the American government, have not told the public anything about the financial crisis. Wait, isn’t that criticism a bit unfair? After all, it takes at least a year or two, if not three, to conduct a thorough study. But have we not learned what social effects resulted from previous economic recessions and depressions? Maybe. It is difficult to find discussions in the sociological literature on this topic.

          About the only one discussing the sociological effects of the current recession is David Brooks, a journalist who writes Op-Ed Columns for the New York Times. Last month in “The Formerly Middle Class”, he wrote that those on the low rungs of the middle class are those for whom the recession is the most catastrophic. “Recessions breed pessimism,” he wrote, and he claimed that millions of Americans, to say nothing of the billions in the developing world, are “facing the psychological and social pressures of downward mobility.”

          Career reversals and job loss yields serious self-doubt, he argued. For the formerly middle-class, housing reversals mean returning from suburban dream homes to run-down apartments, to paraphrase David Brooks’ message.

          Brooks’ most interesting theories have to do with social capital and social identity. Quoting Robert Putnam, he argues that economic depression yields social isolation because people have to stay home more and their community bonds break up. In fact, the history of our great depression shows that suicide rates and divorce rates went up while birth rates went down.

          These predictable trends yield alienation and social protest, and therefore Brooks predicts that the next big social movements will start from the formerly middle class.

          Much of this analysis is conjecture, but isn’t it more relevant than any other sociological topic these days? Economic forecasters share the hunch that the economy will continue to worsen for at least a year. It is very likely that most of us in the middle class will have lost half of the value of our assets before the recession is over. Few will not face sacrifices, struggles and maybe even suffering during the years ahead. What can sociology say now, not next year, to help us understand better what is happening so that we can get through this with greater understanding, and compassion for ourselves as well as for others?




The $700 billion bailout for “financial institutions” requested by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson amounts to $6,300 per household. Fortunately, we will not have to pay it off this year, but the amount with interest will be spread across several years.

            Many expert economists question whether the bailout will solve the economy’s problem. An even larger share, believe the bailout should not be approved without a variety of constraints on how the money is spent. Many also question the degree of urgency and the need to act right away.

            Not surprisingly, Secretary Paulson claims the sky is falling and he needs the $700 billion this week. Two years ago he made $37 million a year as CEO of a now-vulnerable investment bank. Then President Bush asked him to head the nation’s Treasury Department.

            On the other hand, some economists argue that the economy would be better off  without unregulated investment banking, and that real estate values would settle down faster without a bailout of the type demanded. After all, investment banking has become a collection of unregulated casinos that keep coming up with new games investors can play.

            In a political system such as ours that asks individuals to stand on their own and pay for their own welfare, shouldn’t corporations be allowed to fail if they take huge risks without insurance or collateral?

            For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the economy really has to be bailed out by the government. In a democracy like ours shouldn’t the people rather than Congress be asked to pull out their check books and pay for the bailout? They are asked to pay for our society’s social charity, why not economic charity?

            Individual Americans already write checks for charity for about $230 billion a year according to Giving USA. And according to the Independent Sector, last year American volunteers gave 8.1 billion hours of free labor worth $162 billion dollars  through formal organizations. On the basis of the American Time Use, I estimate that that Americans volunteered an additional $345 billion worth of free informal community service. Compare this huge value of charitable donations to last year’s United States Federal budget allocation of $294 billion for unemployment and welfare.

            Americans could do the same for the Investment Banking  industry if they thought it was important enough. Why should the  American people be given the option to be charitable to their fellow human beings, but forced to be charitable to the financial sector? Why should charity to businesses be determined by Congress and lobbyists but charity to the people left largely to private donations?

            Rather than buying assets of failing banks at inflated prices, the economy would be better served by loans to small as well as large businesses, and to home owners facing foreclosure as well as to businesses facing bankruptcy.

            Then the public should be asked to double their charitable donations this year and write checks to funds for ailing businesses. People should be given the choice as to which type of business receives their donation. This would be true economic democracy.

            The Bush administration’s enacted concept of democracy continues to be freedom for economic institutions with little regard to freedom for individuals. What is your conception of how democracy should deal with financial institutions?


Governor Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech for Vice Presidential Republican Candidate, fired the following political shot at Senator Obama: “I guess being the mayor of a small town is similar to being a community organizer, except that a mayor has actual responsibilities.”

            The media, especially Internet bloggers, loved the quote because it was a surprise attack on Senator Obama, in the tradition of borderline dirty politics. In the same speech she likened herself to a pit bull.

            With her vicious remark denigrating community service, she “shot herself in the foot” because a major theme of the RNC was service. Hundreds of Republican delegates waved placards saying nothing but “SERVICE.”

            In his own acceptance speech, John McCain loudly stated “We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities.”

            While most people only heard the impassioned plea for impartial judges, he actually included community and service in the same sentence. Community service is a Republican priority but very low on the list of priorities. Sara Palin only used the word “service” once when she referred military service.

            George H. W. Bush in his 1988 inaugural address placed community service as one of his highest priorities with his catchy phrase “a thousand points of light.” He explicitly stated that these points of light were community organizations and he promised to go to all members of his government and the entire public to try to get them to participate in these community organizations. Twenty years later he is still setting a wonderful example, but his party’s latest candidates have mostly forgotten his message.

            Why does community service deserve a higher priority among Republicans? Well, duh, it is the only way to keep a society functioning if you cut taxes and cut government spending. 

            The United States already depends mightily upon community volunteers and the more we trim government services the more we need volunteer services. The Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census found that in 2007 one in four (26%) of Americans 16 and older volunteered with one or more organizations.

            Sixty-one million Americans gave 8.1 billion hours of time to their communities. For those who volunteered, they each worked an average of 133 hours per year or 22 minutes per day. Volunteers made a most impressive contribution to their country; they deserve applause, not sneers.

            Each year the Independent Sector estimates the economic value of the free hours put in by community volunteers. For 2007 they concluded that volunteer hours were worth on average $19.50, which adds up to a total economic value of $162 billion in free labor. If volunteering for sports and churches is dropped from this total, then we can say that volunteers contributed $90 billion of their time to community organizations last year.

            The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey also found that Americans volunteered an additional 19.8 billion free hours for their communities without going through an organization. Using the same hourly rate and adjustment factor, the total value of informal community service last year was $206 billion. Adding together both types of community service or volunteering, we get a total of $296 billion in free community service.

            Why is this so significant? If American adults were to have to pay to get that work done in their communities, it would cost every tax payer about $2,600 more in taxes per year. The average household would pay $5,570 more per year in taxes.

            Look at this another way. Community volunteers every year are giving each tax-paying household a free rebate of $2,672.

            Suppose in the interest of reducing the size of government, more cuts were made in services for vulnerable groups such as hurricane victims, the elderly, the disabled, and the very poor. Such a policy would make the need for community volunteers even greater than now. But community volunteers are not going to come to the aid of those who need help, unless their free time and effort are appreciated.

            The Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate got political mileage by putting down the work of “community organizers,” but at great expense to the well-being of society. Barack Obama in the 1980s worked for several years as a “community organizer” in the equivalent of a ghetto in Chicago’s south side. He worked more than full time at such a low salary that he essentially was giving most of his time free to the community. In that sense he was a community volunteer.

            Most community volunteers work for private, non-profit organizations like food shelves, nursing homes, and hospitals. But the governmental sector can play a role too. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are two very successful examples of government sponsored programs that coordinate the services of community organizers. Such organizers typically receive so little pay that they are for the most part community volunteers.

            From his experience in working in the “trenches” of urban Chicago, Barack Obama dreamt up similar service corps that could solve social problems at a very low cost. Combining his ideas with those of Joe Biden, they drafted the “Plan for Universal Voluntary Citizen Service.”

            The Obama-Biden plan would not only expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, but would integrate service-learning into schools and universities. Ways would be explored to engage diverse groups including retirees and disadvantaged youth in community service programs. The price tag would be low but the social and economic benefits far reaching.

            Do you want a national leader who denigrates volunteering or one who knows how to capitalize on volunteers?