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Archive for August, 2009

Scottish Holiday

My wife and I leave tomorrow for a week in Scotland, so I won’t post here again until September. When I return I’ll take up a subject with which I’m intimately connected: education. In the meantime, if you have any bigger picture comments or suggestions about this blog, please leave them below and I’ll check them out on my return. Thanks for reading what I’ve done so far, and I look forward to more deliberation when I return.

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At Salon’s How the World Works, Andrew Leonard writes about the high rates of mortgage delinquency and foreclosure in the US, which are reaching historically unprecedented levels. To explain this, Leonard looks back a few years to when the housing crisis first broke in the US.

From the moment politicians began proposing measures to ameliorate the impact of the housing bust on the U.S. economy and individual Americans, critics responded with a strong dose of moral outrage. Why should speculators, flippers, and deadbeat “losers” get help from the government? They screwed up, and they should pay the price. Let them drown in their own option-ARM bile!

(ARM would be adjustable-rate mortgage. Here is Wikipedia’s explanation, for what it’s worth.)

These critics that Leonard summarizes make the seemingly straightforward point that people should have to deal with the consequences of their mistakes. This attitude would seem to be in line with notions of justice. As Baha’u’llah writes in the Lawh-i-Maqsud,

Justice hath a mighty force at its command. It is none other than reward and punishment for the deeds of men. By the power of this force the tabernacle of order is established throughout the world, causing the wicked to restrain their natures for fear of punishment.

So, in order to have justice, we must punish the wicked and reward the good. Justice thus established also trains and gives life to the world and provides the foundation of its stability and order. Baha’u’llah notes in the same tablet:

The structure of world stability and order hath been reared upon, and will continue to be sustained by, the twin pillars of reward and punishment.

and in the eighth of the Ishraqat:

That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.

So, the critics that Leonard cites seem to align with Baha’u’llah’s call to justice.

As Leonard notes, though, what seems a matter of justice is not so straightforward in it consequences. Punishing those people who acted badly (or at least unwisely) by letting them fail in their mortgages has larger consequences for the economy. Leonard again:

The sensible response to this blast of anger was to observe that society as a whole would pay a cost for mistakes made by the imprudent, and like it or not, for the benefit of the general public, we need to do what we can to cushion the impact inflicted on all of us by the irresponsible.

Without saying it explicitly, Leonard notes that the structure of this problem is very similar to that of a multi-party prisoner’s dilemma, in which the bad actions of a few affect many beyond them, even those who have acted responsibly. (Unfortunately, the wikipedia article doesn’t have much on the multi-party version. This page explains it reasonably well. If you want more depth, look to Thomas Schelling, who showed up in the Freakonomics blog here.)

When we see borrowers begin to fall behind on prime fixed-rate 30-year-mortgages because of job loss or other recession-fallout, it’s not so easy to self-satisfyingly blame them for their own predicament. They are collateral damage, and as they lose their homes, further depressing home prices and crimping economic growth, the gyre continues to widen. If there’s any lesson from this mess, it’s that more aggressive government help is necessary when the economy gets hit by a falling anvil.

Because of the dynamic in which irresponsible actions affect even those who have acted responsibly, Leonard advocates government intervention, even if it aids the irresponsible actors. Surely the just should not suffer the punishment of the unjust. To put it in terms of game theory, Leonard wants an outside power to tilt the rules of the game in favor of not hurting cooperators. That seems reasonable, too, falling within the ambit of both justice and wisdom, a balance which Baha’u’llah also extols:

Take heed, O concourse of the rulers of the world! There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom. I, verily, affirm that there is not, and hath never been, a host more mighty than that of justice and wisdom. Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear.

So for regulators, Leonard’s advice is well-grounded. At a more fundamental level, though, the people of the earth need to be alive to the dynamics of collective action as embedded in the multi-party prisoner’s dilemma because so many of our current global problems, from the financial crisis to climate change, manifest that basic structure.

At the level of the individual, we need to begin to heed Baha’u’llah’s call in the Hidden Words, Persian, #5:

O SON OF DUST! Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.

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Somehow, in my post below on the advancement of women, I missed that the New York Times Magazine this week is entirely dedicated to stories about advancing women’s rights.

Here‘s a multimedia taste of what the magazine has on offer, courtesy of Nick Kristof, whose blog is here.

Two more quotes on this theme.

From ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in a talk of 1912:

When all mankind shall receive the same opportunity of education and the equality of men and women be realized, the foundations of war will be utterly destroyed. Without equality this will be impossible because all differences and distinction are conducive to discord and strife.

From a Tablet of Baha’u’llah:

Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God. The Dawning-Place of the Light of God sheddeth its radiance upon all with the same effulgence. Verily God created women for men, and men for women.

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Well, no.

But as their head of leadership development, Evan Wittenberg, notes in a video interview with the Washington Post, they structure themselves to promote individual initiative and use a form of consultation that focuses on choosing the best idea. The relevant part begins at about 3 minutes into the video. (I’ve tried to embed, with no luck.)

The illustrative quote, as well as I could transcribe it:

We have a tendency to be pretty comfortable getting pretty combative around the best idea. And it’s not personal because it’s about the idea. And what it does is at the end of the process it has the best idea win.

Regarding consultation among Baha’is, ‘Abdu’l-Baha exhorts them to the following standard:

In this day, assemblies of consultation are of the greatest importance and a vital necessity. Obedience unto them is essential and obligatory. The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. If after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously well and good; but if, the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.”

He further stipulates:

The first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the assembly. They must be wholly free from estrangement and must manifest in themselves the Unity of God, for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden. Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be non-existent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught. The second condition:—They must when coming together turn their faces to the Kingdom on High and ask aid from the Realm of Glory. They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden. The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority. It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness….

Shoghi Effendi quotes these passages in a letter to the Baha’is of the British Isles, written on March 5, 1922.

I doubt whether Google employees all love each other and collectively ask for the support of God in their endeavours, but no doubt their success in spurring innovation comes to a large degree from the alignment of their management practices with the processes of consultation.

As Baha’u’llah wrote (quoted by the Universal House of Justice in The Promise of World Peace):

Consultation bestows greater awareness and transmutes conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leads the way and guides. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.

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(Updated below.)

Speaking at Hotel Sacramento on October 25, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Baha made the following observation:

The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment. When the two wings or parts become equivalent in strength, enjoying the same prerogatives, the flight of man will be exceedingly lofty and extraordinary. Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 375)

In light of that quotation, it was good to see Korean golfer Se Re Pak getting her due as the first Korean to win a major golf tournament. (One of her male countrymen just beat Tiger Woods in the US PGA Championships this week.)

I’m more ambivalent about the fact that women are now fighting alongside men in Iraq (video here), but only because they’re out there killing people like the men have done. Of course, they’re training Iraqis to be able to provide security for their own country, too, which is undoubtedly good.

More broadly, It was heartening to read Mary Beth Sheridan’s piece in The Washington Post that Secretary of State Clinton will make women’s development a central issue in her tenure. As Sheridan notes,

Clinton vowed in a major policy address last month to make women the focus of U.S. assistance programs. The idea is applauded by development experts, who have found that investing in girls’ education, maternal health and women’s micro-finance provides a powerful boost to Third World families.

So, nearly 100 years on, evidence and experience show that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s observation was correct. Maybe this bird will fly soon, after all.

UPDATE
It appears that there’s at least one strong counter-example to the advancement of women in the news today. A new law just passed the Afghan parliament.

It allows a man to withhold food from his wife if she refuses his sexual demands; a woman must get her husband’s permission to work; and fathers and grandfathers are given exclusive custody of children.

UPDATE II

Amy Davidson has a bit more analysis of women in the US military. She writes:

And is this worth celebrating? Don’t women have both the privilege and responsibility not to be warriors—to be, depending on how you feel about war, the girl back home or Lysistrata? War is hard enough on boys—do we need girls to be soldiers, too? But that’s like saying that the draft is fine as long as upper-middle-class college students are exempt. Sending an eighteen-year-old boy to die and kill in a foolish war is not any better than sending an eighteen-year-old girl.

In case you need to know who Lysistrata is, here is the play by Aristophanes and a summary.

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Testing the Servants

Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich,” a story in today’s New York Times, describes the so-called prosperity gospel movement, in which “partners” are asked to donate to projects like buying a private airplane for the ministry.

In The Hidden Words (Arabic, #55), Baha’u’llah writes, “O SON OF BEING! Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.”

His servants are being tested. Whether they’re coming up wanting, God knows.

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In her now-famous lecture in 2001, “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” Sonia Sotomayor devoted a few sentences to statistics about minority representation in the US federal judiciary:

As of September 1, 2001, the federal judiciary consisting of Supreme, Circuit and District Court Judges was about 22% women. In 1992, nearly ten years ago, when I was first appointed a District Court Judge, the percentage of women in the total federal judiciary was only 13%. Now, the growth of Latino representation is somewhat less favorable. As of today we have, as I noted earlier, no Supreme Court justices, and we have only 10 out of 147 active Circuit Court judges and 30 out of 587 active district court judges. Those numbers are grossly below our proportion of the population. As recently as 1965, however, the federal bench had only three women serving and only one Latino judge. So changes are happening, although in some areas, very slowly. These figures and appointments are heartwarming.

Clearly, Sotomayor is concerned that minorities are underrepresented in the federal judiciary. According to the statistics, women and Latinos do not hold positions on the judiciary in numbers proportional to their representation in the wider US population. Her standard for justice in this instance seems based on an idea of proportionality. If a particular group is 15% of the wider population, members of that group should also represent at least 15% of the members of the judiciary. This logic makes a certain kind of sense, but justice does not require mere balancing of percentages. It involves righting wrongs and giving all people the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

In The Advent of Divine Justice, written in 1938, Shoghi Effendi outlines Baha’i policy on minority representation in Baha’i work:

…every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it. So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community. In the light of this principle, and bearing in mind the extreme desirability of having the minority elements participate and share responsibility in the conduct of Bahá’í activity, it should be the duty of every Bahá’í community so to arrange its affairs that in cases where individuals belonging to the divers minority elements within it are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements, Bahá’í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible. pp. 35-6

Shoghi Effendi clearly values the participation of members of minorities in the life of the community, especially in its representative institutions. And in the quotation above he establishes a mechanism by which that participation may be achieved. In the racial parlance of modern America, Shoghi Effendi establishes a type of affirmative action. It is, however, markedly different from many affirmative action policies in place. It has at its root a similar motivation: “to stimulate and encourage [the minority]”. But Shoghi Effendi goes further than that, stating that the policy also exists to “afford [the minority] an opportunity to further the interests of the community.” This is a crucial distinction, in that through their participation in institutions, members of minorities have their opportunity to contribute to the work of the community as a whole. In making this contribution, they become an integral part of community life and play their part in forging the unity which it is the purpose of the Baha’i Faith to create. So, their participation is not an end in itself but a means to the unity of the community. If there is any question that this would undermine unity, it must be kept in mind that members of Baha’i institutions do not represent any constituency but look after the interests of the community at large. (See this article for more about Baha’i elections.) Viewing minority representation on institutions through this lens puts the lie to Sotomayor’s focus on proportionality. It is not mere representation that is important, but active contribution to the diverse and unified whole.

As American experience over the last forty years demonstrates, affirmative action policies, potentially aimed toward or driven by specific quotas, also have the danger of breeding a sense of resentment among members of majorities. Shoghi Effendi’s policy avoids this pitfall. It establishes a requirement that any individual who is elected or appointed to a representative institution within the Baha’i Faith must be “already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements.” Implementing this requirement allows Baha’i communities to avoid experiences like those of Clarence Thomas or other members of minorities who are perceived to have advanced not through their own merit but because of their race. So, Shoghi Effendi’s policy preserves the unity of the whole while at the same time encouraging members of minorities to advance and to contribute to the community.

So, should we have “a wise Latina” on the highest court in the United States? Undoubtedly so, and necessarily one as well-qualified as Sonia Sotomayor.

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