Showing posts with label BostonPhoenix. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BostonPhoenix. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Celestial Update: This brief transit

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Back in the 18th century, observing the Transit of Venus took a ridiculous amount of effort, involving ships, draft animals, wagons with wooden wheels, and telescopes made by the best optics engineer in the world. Today — say it with me — there's an app for that.
In 1716, Edmond Halley (yes, the comet guy) asked the world scientific community to mount massive expeditions in 1761 and 1769 to watch Venus cross in front of the Sun. He expected that by comparing the observations from different points around the globe (called parallax), astronomers would be able to calculate the Earth's distance from the Sun.
As detailed in historian Andrea Wulf's recent book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (Knopf), European nations (and the American colonies) took Halley up on his proposal in 1761 and again in 1769, sending astronomers to the far reaches of the planet.
The expeditions took years, and assembling the results and making the calculations took even longer. It wasn't until 1771 that the British Royal Society was ready to declare a result: 93,726,900 miles. That's less than one percent different than the present calculation of 92,960,000 miles.
We don't need your help measuring anymore, but if you want to attempt to re-enact just the observational challenges (for long, dangerous journeys, you're on your own), visit and download the free app, for iPhone and Android. It'll give you some simulated runs so you can perfect your timing, and be ready to go. (See below for your local observatory's viewing activity.)
You should take this opportunity — it's the last chance you'll have to see the Transit of Venus. (You caught the last one, in 2004, right? Yeah, neither did we.) The last pair happened in December 1874 and December 1882, and the next will be in December 2117 and December 2125. So mark your calendars.
Transit of Venus | dome show + viewing in the field (weather permitting) | Southworth Planetarium, 96 Falmouth St, Portland | June 5 @ 5 pm | Free | 207.780.4249 |

Transit of Venus | live telecast | Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park, 1000 Elmwood Ave, Providence | June 5 @ 6 pm | $8, under 12 free | 401.331.8575 x36 |

Transit of Venus | viewing + live telecast | Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden St, Cambridge | June 5 @ 5 pm | free | 617.495.7461 | harbor cruise + viewing in the field (weather permitting) | Spectacle Island (ferries from Long Wharf), Boston Harbor | June 5 @ 5 pm | free | 617.222.6999 |

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The power of texting: Mobile phones and alternative currencies are changing how the whole world pays for everything

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Money — crispy banknotes and jangly coins — is as old-fashioned as, well, mechanical typewriters. We all know what a typewriter is, and some of us — in a pinch— might even be able to operate one. But by and large, typewriters are quaint cultural artifacts fit for exhibiting in museums or selling at flea markets.
And so it is with greenbacks, cash, money.
Music has been digitized; so have movies, books, and most of the commodities we call media. And whether we recognize it or not, the way we buy and sell things, be it a cup of coffee or an automobile, is likewise being transformed and revolutionized.
Two recent books, Robert Neuwirth's Stealth of Nations (Pantheon) and David Wolman's The End of Money (Da Capo), show us different aspects of that transformation. It's a world with prices charged in prepaid cell-phone airtime minutes, and with earnings transferred from urban workers to rural dwellers in seconds over phone-to-phone money-transfer services like Kenya's wildly popular M-Pesa.
Wolman, who reads at the Harvard Book Store on Tuesday, March 6, at 7 pm, shows us that physical currency (paper banknotes and metal coins) are disappearing in the West, where savvy consumers walk around with PayPal and Google Wallet apps in their pockets — and in the world's poorest places, where even a very rudimentary flip-phone can send money safely across miles of rugged terrain, or let a tiny streetside tinkerer open a bank account.
Neuwirth, for his part, visits unlicensed and unregulated markets around the developing world and explores how they avoid government regulation while conducting massive import-export and street-market sales operations. While much of his book is about the cash-only model that has dominated what he calls the "informal economy," various scenes throughout his reporting illustrate the ubiquity of money-enhanced cell phones in even the poorest slums and villages.
Given their overlapping — and mutually enlightening — viewpoints on how money can and soon will be used by regular people the world over, the Phoenix got the two authors together by telephone. They talk about how mobile phones are the basis of a coming revolution in how money is stored, transferred, saved, and spent.
ROBERT NEUWIRTH I'll start by saying there's cool congruencies and some differences. Being contentious by nature, I'll start with the differences. I think I'm writing about the people who avoid the tracked and scrutinized economy of the bitmap dollar, if you will. And so in my view, from what I gleaned from David's book, whether or not money as a physical form (the germ-ridden bills) disappears, there are going to be people who find alternative ways of doing business. And the folks that I've written about in my most recent book definitely depend on that kind of strategy, and I think for them it doesn't matter whether money stays in the physical form or not, they're going to find ways of doing business that get around all the reporting requirements.
DAVID WOLMAN I remember somewhere you said, Robert, that a lot of this economic activity is about flying under the radar of government. My thinking on that right away is, 'Well yes — except that most of it is conducted with the currency issued by the government.' So, in that sense, are the actors in the shadow markets of the world given a leg up by sovereign currencies in physical form versus electronic form? Or are they eager to see new, alternative ways to transact, whether it's with alternative currencies or whether it's trading in airtime minutes — which you write a bunch about, and which I touched on some in my book? I think you're absolutely right, this issue of commerce conducted under the radar and unreported, that will persist whether or not we finally put cash in the grave. But I find much more tantalizing the question of who might be helped once we put cash in the grave. It may be that the poor and the innovators who are involved in these shadow markets could do really well if they're, for example, moving faster to mobile payments than necessarily having to store and secure a little lockbox of their earnings there at the umbrella market.
It almost reminds me of these clowns who say get the federal government off my Medicare, in that they're not totally separate from the government in that they are using the government-issued currency. It's quite at a distance, it's true — they're not reporting, they're not paying taxes — but they're still —
RN They're patronizing the sovereign currency, exactly.
DW Exactly. And they all depend on it. I don't say that in a kill-the-Fed conspiracy theorist sense of it, but it's thought-provoking at least.
RN You brought up something interesting, which I actually didn't think about for the future. One of the biggest problems that the transnational merchants who are involved in the informal economy face is dealing with the devilish exchange rates, and the way in which a falling dollar and rising yuan can kill trade in a third country that's using the dollar and yuan to convert its sovereign currency into dollars, and then convert dollars into yuan to buy things from China and ship them back home. If there were something that kept its value and could be universally exchanged, such as mobile-phone credit or frequent-flier miles or something like that, that would definitely benefit the folks in the underground because they are definitely looking for ways they don't lose out on exchange rates.
DW In talking about the war on cash or the onslaught on cash, part of cash's death is by a thousand cuts. This is being inflicted by new technologies — mobile money and trading in M-Pesa in Kenya and all of that. But there is this whole other front in the war being conducted in the alternative-virtual-community-currencies world. And that's what you are talking about, that does go far beyond Disney Dollars and airline miles. People kind of have a knee-jerk response to the idea, thinking it's kind of kooky, in a way . . . but they work and they do hold a lot of promise for people in the developing world who have an interest now in challenging government's monopoly on issuing currency. I don't think that means we should pooh-pooh national currencies to the extent that we deny the incredible prosperity they have helped societies to build over the last century or more. But if you look at the euro crisis right now . . . I think there are strong arguments to be made that our wallets, and more specifically our financial lives, might not be hurt if we had not just other payment options, but other currencies. The key is, can you keep the exchange rate smooth and fluid like you're saying, because all this alternative currency stuff sounds like a crazy hassle, far less convenient than cash on the surface. I think the mobile phone can help us skirt around that if it can be programmed to help us conduct these exchanges in real time on the fly, even out there in the slums of Delhi.
RN One of the questions I have for you, since I haven't researched alternative currencies, David, is: I read some stuff about the Swiss alternative currency that's used by small businesses, and most of the alternative currencies I have looked into are pegged in some way to the national currency. I am wondering whether that is the norm right now, or do you see people breaking away from that?
DW I think the peg adds an aura of authenticity; you don't necessarily have to have it, but it doesn't really hurt them to be exchangeable, Maybe the way some alternative-currency innovators will get around that is if they are trading for example units of electricity, because that has "real" value in the physicists' sense of it — not in the gold enthusiast's sense of real value. It's a constant. This is really hard and heady stuff, but if we could ever find a way to be trading in kilowatts, it's going to take the same amount of electricity to light up a light bulb next week as it is 30 years from now, so that's real value that we can understand and we can predict. In that sense, I don't think you really need the peg, but for some of these other ones, again, going back to this idea of a rainbow of currencies at your disposal. If you can balance between Linden dollars and Bitcoin and Facebook credits and Malawi kwacha, why not do so? They're all floating anyway, and this is a much more macro point but it's all about accepting the faith of how currency and how money works, and if you've decided to believe in the value of Bitcoin or you've decided to believe in the value of Linden dollars, then you're on board already, so why not accept the changeability?
DW Number one is to acknowledge the incredible success of national currencies, just because they have achieved that universal acceptability that you're talking about. That universal fungibility — you can apply those funds to almost any use. For all of those operatives in the underworld economy or System D — I love that by the way — it's pretty interesting that, in a way, governments have let them down so much, but not necessarily when it comes to providing them with a means of transaction or a medium of exchange. This is where, Robert, you should chime in and hit this one out of the park. That enormous community is full of innovators. They are going to be the ones who see value in other types of currency and can start to apply them. We've seen this totally organically happen with trading airtime minutes as a currency. That is an alternative currency now that people in the developing world are using to transact and buy things — not just talking time for their phones — because they're so widely accepted, because they're all over the place, because they're easy to work with, and because they're a lot safer than cash. I see that as a single example of what I suspect could be a lot of different alternative currencies sprouting up in the developing world. But, again, Robert, correct me if I'm wrong —
RN Well, first of all, just on the example you bring up, although I used cash to buy it, I transacted a low-level bribe in mobile-phone airtime when I went to the Alaba market in Lagos, Nigeria. The merchant that I spoke with basically said, "Why should I help you? And before I help you, buy me airtime." So, I gave him airtime — it was a tiny increment of airtime in relative terms, but that was what greased the wheels to get me to the leadership of the Alaba International Market. He didn't want the cash. I could have given him the cash, but he wanted the airtime.
DW Oh my God, this is like music to my ears. This is music to my ears, I love it.
RN I do think that there's a lot of potential for airtime. I do think the issue of trust is a difficult one, but I could certainly see the trust that has been generated in certain informal markets being leveraged up to run their own kind of alternative currency. Cru Da Vinci Cinco de Marzo in Brazil, or Alaba International in Lagos, could leverage the trust that people have of their merchants to create their own currency, and basically run their markets either in cash or in their own currency. That would be a way of furthering the market, and jacking up the amount of trade that they could do. It would also mean that if you buy Alaba currency or Alaba units or whatever they would be, you would have to continue shopping in Alaba if you have any left over, so you couldn't go to some other market, which would lock people in, which I think the merchants would really like.
DW This also gets at premium on utility, among these people who in many ways who are just getting by. Robert, you mentioned this in your recent Wired interview [, that these people don't think of themselves as underground operatives. They're generating income so they can take care of their families and put food on the table. That segment of the population will jump to options that provide increased efficiency in their economic lives, or the corollary to that is reduced friction in their economic lives. And that's why the airtime minutes thing is so popular, and for example the mobile-money stuff that is so popular in many parts of Africa now, especially the M-Pesa program that just took off like wildfire in Kenya. I hate the business-speak of this turn of phrase, but it's real: the value proposition of it is so clear to those people.
For us, we can toggle between cash and electronic money fairly freely and we don't really sense that friction quite as much. But people over there, it's just so glaringly apparent.
RN I was going to ask you, do you think that frictionless environment will change over time? The guy you wrote about in India, the transactor, if you will, of all these mobile apparatuses that create savings accounts with the State Bank of India, he's collecting a fee, right?
DW Right.
RN I've noticed here in the States that sometimes when I try to make a payment electronically, transfer funds from my bank to somewhere else, suddenly credit-card companies want to charge me, for that. So instead of what started out as a frictionless place where you're not getting interrupted by these excess fees — which basically make it more cumbersome and more difficult and more like cash, if you will — you're getting extra fees put on. I see the same thing going on at gas stations, where if you want to gas up a car, you can now pay less if you pay in cash and more if you're paying electronically. Do you think it's natural that the people who administer these things — because right now they're being administered by for-profit entities — are going to ramp up the fees, which take away the very benefit of the frictionless environment that is supposed to be so much better.
DW I think it'll be a cost-benefit analysis for each case. My book is not a Valentine to the credit-card companies. Their outrageous fees are a huge problem. But I actually think that as the question of cash's shelf life comes into the sunlight, maybe people will actually scrutinize the operations of credit-card companies more as they learn about and demand better payment options that don't charge such steep fees.
But more specifically, back to the guy in India whose company is sort of the "software" between the mobile-phone user in the poor slums and the no-frills bank account at the State Bank of India. There's a guy who I write about in the slums who I was talking to at a local pharmacy while he was doing a transaction, about the value proposition of this thing that he's doing. He's depositing some cash in his bank account by just taking some earnings after repairing somebody's radio and he walked across the street, and with a little bit of texting from him and from the pharmacy owner, suddenly that money is now in his bank account.
I asked him about the concerns that everybody here in the States asks me about. Which is, are you worried about hackers and identity theft? And if financial crime is just as bad, if not much worse, than physical crime, why are you trusting them so much? And then I'm also asking about the fee, because this company, Eko India Financial, they get a fee skimmed off the top of his transaction. Which is a super-modest transaction, by the way, and a super-modest fee. And he looked at me like I was from the moon! He said the benefit of this compared to what his financial life was like previously is just so unquestionable. Specifically on the remittances front. He was one of those people who had to ride a bus for a day and a half to go give money to family members in the countryside. And to come back is another day and a half. That's three days of lost income generation. It's the bus fee. It's risking what might happen to his shop while he's away, his merchandise.
So for him it was so much better. You're right that the fees and things are cause for concern. But I'd like to think that everyday consumers will be like this guy, Sonu Kumar, and see the benefit of it. And if they don't see the benefit, or if the fee is way too high for them, well, then they'll just walk down the street to somebody else who's offering a better payment option. I hope.
RN It may also be that the benefits for them will outweigh fees, but the fees are still going to be in aggregate terms low, but in percentage terms maybe pretty high, the same way that Procter & Gamble charges a lot more for a single sachet of Downy fabric softener than they do for a huge 23-pound box. But the single-sachet people are willing to pay the higher profit margin on the single sachet, because that's all they can afford and they want that Downy fabric softener.
I'm not saying that's wrong, I'm just saying that the fee may wind up, once again, being more onerous on the poor people, even though it's still a benefit to them because it outweighs standing on line at the bank or taking the bus for three days across India to go see mom.
DW I think that also cuts to the core of how we feel, ethically or emotionally, about the role of money or the role of payments. Is the currency is like a utility, or something the government should be providing to all of us? And processing a payment — is it fair to charge a four-percent fee to process a payment when really the merchant and the consumer are doing their part in that transaction to help grow the economy anyway?
RN There is an interesting argument to be made that the payment processing could be nationalized. And then done for free.
DW You just invited all kinds of hate mail from the Big Brother types — who have been writing me non-stop, by the way.
RN What's the difference between Big Brother doing it or the big kahuna of American Express doing it? It's still a large entity with interests in controlling and monitoring our behavior.
DW I think that's totally fair. Another way to say that is, as another economist who wrote a review on a book had said, "People trust governments more than they trust banks." Which isn't saying much, but it's true. I think that's fair, and I'm not eager to dismiss that anxiety because I feel it, too. I don't think it's just American Express, though, it's American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover, PayPal —
RN Oh yes, yes.
DW — and a whole host of new payment processors, square from this guy Jack Dorsey from Twitter is coming on. I think they will eat at the fees of the credit-card companies in a pretty substantial way. It's promoting innovation, and it's up to the consumer to go find the start-ups that are behaving more ethically, toward them and with their money.
RN It would be really interesting to see some of the "fixers" who operate between China and Africa for instance, coming up with their own way of solving the exchange-rate problem, by trying to have an African hawala system, where money gets transferred without the currency transaction that destroys a tremendous amount of value in the African currencies. Where somehow without all the profit centers with each transaction so that they can just do it once, and send their money there, and their money is there when they get to China.
DW I have a nice anecdote, which gets past the wonky talk. The ability to bounce between currencies is going to be fabulous for people in ways they can't even conceive, and I think it strikes at the heart of this question of what is real value. The example in the book is you have an upcoming family trip to Disney World, so maybe you want to get paid in Disney Dollars from someone, so much so that you would be offering a discount on the actual price of the thing, if they are willing to pay you in Disney Dollars.
RN The difficulty with all of this in my thinking of it, is the universal acceptance of the thing. So, for instance, I can see that everyone on the MTN or Globacom or other network in Nigeria being able to trade minutes. The problem is how do you trade minutes with China Mobile? The costs are different, and so you still need a unit of exchange and you're still dealing with a kind of currency, it's just virtual, it's airtime.
DW Or it's a US dollar even. Part of my thesis isn't to get rid of national currency, I mean I bring up the idea, but it's more to get rid of the analog, physical representations of it. Maybe to bounce from MTN airtime minutes to China Mobile, you want to go through a national currency because they've achieved this great level of universal acceptability, and that's just not so bad.
RN The fallacy of that is that not every national currency has achieved universal acceptability. That's why the Nigerian merchants have to convert their naira into dollars and their dollars into yuan, because the Chinese won't accept naira. And presumably there are a lot of other currencies, most African countries' for instance, that China is not interested in transacting currency exchanges in. They might take rand, maybe, but I'm not even sure they convert rand.
DW I like hearing this from you because it gives me the sense, I hope, that you liked the chapter in the book about Iceland and questioning the relationship between a sovereign currency and a sovereign state, and does it really make sense to have every single country have its own currency? No one wants to hold Malawi kwacha as a source of wealth, let alone the Chinese aren't going to accept it as payment for anything. So these are tricky questions, but then of course you turn it right on its head and look what happened in the Eurozone with the consolidation of national currencies and now these central bankers can't really do anything but write white papers at home because they don't have any tools at their disposal to help remedy their economies in Italy and Spain and Portugal.
RN If you're going to have a transnational currency, you need in some way a transnational government. What was the old line, disarmament requires world government? It's very tricky, the currency issues are very tricky. I'm certainly willing to pay you some gigantic stones from Yap if it goes on, but I don't think in our lifetimes the national currencies are going anywhere.
DW I don't think so, either, but I think there will be some further consolidation, but I'm not denominating my child's very modest college fund in Thai baht or anything like that.
RW No, I certainly concede that argument.
DW I think what you are hinting at is that, if airtime minutes are a currency in this way, the issuing authority of the currency is really the company. It's a private entity and is that safe and okay? I think there are real concerns about that because steering the money supply is a tricky game. And so with airtime minutes as a currency, you imagine some people out there right now may be sitting on a mountain of wealth denominated in airtime minutes. But what if for whatever reason, the issuer of those airtime minutes — MTN or someone — was just suddenly giving them away for free? With an oversupply of this form of money it hyperinflates it overnight. Now people who actually sold clothing and cows based on the idea that this is a safe thing, now they're hosed. Their value goes up in smoke.
But the machinations are just the same as regards swings in value of national currencies. But the central bank of a government has more tools at its disposal to try and keep the economy in check and control the money supply. This is the big fear, whether it's airtime minutes or even Ithaca Hours, but it doesn't make it any less real of a form of money. I think your concern about who is safeguarding that money supply is a real one because it's a private corporate entity, and not necessarily a government, which circles back to that idea that people seem to trust governments more than banks or let's say big telecom companies — which maybe isn't saying so much, but it does say something.
DW I think so. Or at least I think that's the idea. The worrier in me says you're exactly right, the top-brass China Mobile could be that could just be horrible increasing the fees like that and nobody knows who they are and can go after them. But the technologist in me, without sounding too much like a Pollyanna, would hope that there are just enough options in the future when it comes to varying forms of currency that if people found they're getting charged too much for such-and-such that they would just jump. They would jump to another currency, another national currency maybe, or whether it's kilowatt hours, or airtime minutes of another carrier or something like that. I know that sounds a little bit simplistic, but we could see enough start-up activity and technology activity to make those options available. But if we don't, I think you're right. How do we know that these businesses will act for the benefit of the masses, and not necessarily for themselves? That doesn't bode well.
RN There are all sorts of problems built into it, but I would argue that some of these things could benefit by starting on the local level and then seeing whether they scale up. For instance, I can see a particularly vibrant and big street market having some alternative payment system. Whether it would be mobile-phone minutes or something else really almost doesn't matter, but I can see them doing that, and trying to do that in the way that avoids the kinds of fluctuations that you're talking about. Then, once it's accepted on that local level, they can see how that would interact with other kinds of operations. It's not automatic that everyone trusts each other anyway. The Chinese merchants don't necessarily trust the African merchants, so what they trust is the trusted currency right now. For instance, I could see in China where a Nigerian merchant could pay his fixers (the either African or Chinese guys who take him around to different factories to see where he can get stuff manufactured), I could see that merchant paying in mobile-phone credit or some other kind of alternative currency. To scale that up to some sort of larger transnational kind of thing, I think would be much more difficult.
DW You're exactly right, Robert, about this stuff being born at the community level, and in a lot of ways there isn't a huge need early on for it to expand further, and in many ways, that's what this whole idea of community currencies is about. It's sort of like the "eat local" movement. So you want to use your Ithaca Hours locally, or you want to use you MTN airtime minutes locally within that city, or region or country, but if it has an exchange rate to the dollar or something else then for those who do need to jump out to buy something from overseas, or transact overseas, they can, but they don't really have much of a need or a motivation to locally (especially if they get a little bit of a discount by transacting with this local currency that is there to kind of hyper-drive local commerce).
RN Most of the time the deal starts with someone who goes. So there is an African guy who goes to China — or an African woman. The relationships are made face-to-face, initially. Once you develop trust face-to-face then everything is possible. But it's really based on the trust you can develop in person. In that way, it's no different from what I did. If I called up a Nigerian merchant who does business with China and just tried to ask him questions over the phone, he'd never answer me. So what I had to do was go there. I had to show up and develop trust with people and give them a reason why they could think that I'd be honestly presenting what they do with a degree of dignity for them. And so as long as they can do that then whatever alternate currency they are willing to transact in would be probably fine. I mean if China Mobile offered an M-Pesa type service, I'm sure that the African merchants who did business with Linda Chan — who I mentioned my book who is a relatively small-scale dealer in auto parts in Guangzhou (and when I say relatively small-scale, it's more than a million dollars a year, but that's still small scale compared to some major factories) — with the merchants that she knows she would then be willing to accept payment that way because she would trust the merchants would be open and aboveboard because she knows them and they come recommended by people that she knows.
DW The magic of it. Maybe it's because I'm not an economist but it doesn't cease to amaze me.
RN Yeah, I mean, so far, money is a formalized system, right? And that's what everyone has trusted to be the medium of exchange. And I'm not sure there's going to be any kind of haphazard medium of exchange. I think that markets may look at these kinds of things and determine that you can make a better profit using them than doing business with suitcases full of cash. But I'm not necessarily sure that there's any non-formal entity that is going to be able to develop that kind of huge amount of trust. The company in Paraguay that dealt with smuggling computers and peripherals into Paraguay and then smuggling them out into Brazil did handshake deals worth millions of dollars with American companies. But of course the reason was because those companies had trust in them and because ultimately the payment was made in dollars. So I don't necessarily see that changing.
DW I have to bolt in a minute here. Believe it or not, I have to get a rental car to go to Seattle.
RN How are you paying for that?
DW Plastic. I don't adore them but I'm like you, I travel a lot, I like the airline miles, even though I know it's a gimmick to keep their hooks into me, there is some value in it. And it's quick and I don't want to have cash on me.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Holy war How an unholy alliance of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals seeks to control our lives

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

And so it came to pass, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical Protestants have banded together to battle, well, the rest of us — the heathens, the godless liberals, the Hitchens-reading progressives.

If you are unmarried and have sex, you're one of us. If you are married and use birth control, you are among the damned. If you are gay, you are especially damned. And if you are straight and favor gay rights, you're just as fucked.

This triple entente of sky-god worshipers — call them the Unholy Alliance — have amassed an almost unlimited treasury with which to wage war on abortion rights, birth control, and legislation that might support women's or gay equality.

The rest of us can run, but none of us can hide from the Unholy Alliance. From California to Maine, the Alliance has done a hell of a job killing same-sex marriage. There is no way to deny the unholy triumph.

The weirdness of all this is that each faith's tradition holds as a central belief that the others are not true believers; Catholics go further, believing that Mormons are not even Christians.

There are similarities among the three, of course — a professed desire to do good in the world, and to help people be part of something larger than themselves. As a result, many interfaith groups work together to fight hunger, poverty, and low-quality health care, bringing to bear their congregations' numbers and wealth to make others' lives better.

Now, though, as religious leaders from these sects — previously suspicious of each other — collectively redirect those resources to gender and sexual politics, they are looking beyond doing good in this world, toward creating what they view as God's world.

To really understand what's happening, we have to look beyond rhetoric and into theology. At the heart of this political work is an unwavering approach toward sin. Most faiths teach that there are certain practices that followers should shun, such as the Jewish and Muslim ban on eating pork. But some teachings in conservative sects go deeper, asking followers not only to refrain from forbidden behaviors themselves, but to work to prevent others from engaging in them.

A good example of this comes from Elmer Towns, the 77-year-old evangelist who in 1971 co-founded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell. "We no longer believe the Bible is the means of authority for how people should live," he laments to the Phoenix over the phone from his home in Virginia. "Sin is sin."

Towns would prefer Americans to live more godly lives — whether they are believers or not. "America has always been, let the minority have their say — let the majority have their way," he says. (He is careful to note Jesus's Biblical urging to "love your neighbor as yourself," but still sees the active purging of society's moral wrongs as "God's work.")

It is an aggressive and prescriptive interpretation of the concept of being one's brother's keeper. While some, like Towns, won't come out and say it directly, their line of argument is clear: not only are we responsible for our own salvation, but we must endeavor to save others, even from themselves. The consequences of failure are severe: true followers of each of these three faiths believe that, if one of their flock is aware of a sin, even one committed by others, and does not act to prevent it and reform the sinner, then the believer is as guilty of the sin as the person who actually committed it. And it is true that there is no better way to impose a set of restrictions across the entire population than by law.

What it looked like
This phenomenon was first seen in modern America during the '70s and '80s with the rise — and then fall — of the Moral Majority. Towns recalls the criticism directed at Falwell then for suggesting that evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics "join together not for salvation purposes but for ethics and for family."
Driven by their shared objections to what they view as the excesses of modern culture, the churches were driven into each others' arms.

Towns cites Falwell as an example of a religious-political leader who "felt he had a mandate from God to bring this nation back" to a remembered glory. (It won't surprise you that Towns is a fan of the Tea Party movement, although he doubts its chances of success.)

The collaboration resurfaced and drew national attention in 2008, with California's gay-marriage debate, though it had begun to come together in 2006, when President George W. Bush nominated conservative judges John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"They recognize that the Supreme Court plays a very important role in shaping political and cultural dialogue," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Public Research Associates, a Boston-area progressive think-tank that watches the political actions of the religious right. The Unholy Alliance solidly backed Roberts and Alito, seeing them as like-minded activists who would continue to shift government toward churchly goals, particularly on gay-rights and abortion issues.

The Alliance opposed Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and are working to block Elena Kagan's appointment, seeing them as too liberal. "If Obama gets to appoint the people he wants to appoint," Berlet says, "it will shift the political scene over the next 30 years" — and not in a way the religious right are hoping for.

When Proposition 8, which set to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, was placed on that state's ballot in 2008, the Unholy Alliance was again at the forefront. Led by the Mormon church, Catholic and evangelical leaders also donated church funds and urged followers to contribute time and money to the campaign.

In Maine last year, the same thing happened, led this time by the Roman Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine, Richard Malone, who personally testified before lawmakers in opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. When it passed, Malone spearheaded the repeal effort, issuing letters to be read from pulpits statewide, and ordering special collections during services to send their proceeds to "defend marriage." Evangelicals were prominent in the campaign, and the Mormon-linked National Organization for Marriage provided two-thirds of the funding. (Nationwide outcry against this overt political action by churches led to a backlash; see sidebar, "Paying Taxes?")

In the national health-care debate, the Alliance — often in the form of the Family, an evangelical group with ties to many members of Congress (and Maine governor John Baldacci, a former congressman), — stepped in to protect the godly from the godless. Berlet sums it up neatly, saying their argument was that big government is really a form of collectivism, which leads to totalitarianism, which leads to authoritarianism, in which a person is substituted for (or alternately believed to actually be) a god. And so, in their eyes, Obama's desire to expand government's role in health-care is evidence that he is both Stalin and Hitler.

The underpinning 
Scholars of the intersection of religion and politics agree that this development is both new and startling. But they also see a rationale: "Religion fundamentally has moral values and principles," says Roger Keller, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. "When those get tweaked by social issues . . . that's what normally draws people into the political arena."

"It's the emotional appeal based on references that are largely Biblical and widely recognized in an evangelical culture in which every political action has to be linked to a Biblical background," says Berlet.

Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at the Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago, says there is a core belief that "politics has to be moral and we want to get our religious views in there." He characterizes the political aspirations of religious movements as "a way of protecting the public sphere as part of their image of what a moral society looks like."

Williams says, in an aside, that many of these individuals may not have problems with homosexuals as people, but rather object to any form of public approval, such as having those relationships recognized by the government as in any way similar to heterosexual marriage.

And while the focus of moralist social reformers has shrunk over the past century (giving up on Prohibition; reining in zealotry around the content of television shows and musical recordings), the conflict between the godly and the rest of us is likely to continue for some time.

Keller says part of this battle is theological: "Some of them are trying to save their neighbors." A converted Mormon who is a former Presbyterian and Methodist minister, he has a more detached view than some of his co-religionists; he argues that his beliefs don't give him the right to say what the government should impose on others. "I shouldn't ask the government to do the job of defining for everybody my moral standards."

But Keller admits, "often, religious organizations don't make that kind of distinction."

That may be dangerous, warns Traci West, a professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Codifying in law a specific prohibition, she says, demonstrates lack of the humility most religions preach. "Christians ultimately never know who is right based on who is saved," she says. "It is only God who separates the wheat from the chaff."

As a result, she suggests an alternative faith-based approach to morals: urging the government to protect "some common values of supporting each other to be caring and respectful across our differences, which of course we're going to have."

Looking forward 
And so we come down to the crux of the matter: those who believe the United States should be "a Christian nation," and those who want it to remain the open, pluralistic society it has always been. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," John Winthrop wrote of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "The eyes of all people are upon us." But America as a whole was created as bigger than that, with tolerance and mutual understanding of our differences underpinning the communal ability to be a far greater whole than the sum of our parts. (That's also, by the way, the origin of Ben Franklin's "Join, or Die" cartoon, which is one basis for the Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag so widely waved by Tea Partiers today.)

Perhaps the best news, if it can be called that, is this: Williams predicts that the positions that are aggressively defended by religious organizations, and their mutual alliances, are likely fairly solid now, having retreated to the most basic fundamental human ideas of family, marriage, and sex.

The energy with which those positions will be held, however, worries Keller, who likens churches "imposing" their doctrines on government to the religious-political connections in Iran's government, which is largely run by clerics acting behind the elected lay politicians.

West, as might be expected of a scholar of African-American culture in northern New Jersey, sees America as a "very pluralistic society" in which all types of people must learn to coexist. Opposing same-sex marriage is, to her, supporting "destruction of family life"; she says she wants to ask church leaders who oppose it, "Why that sense of urgency?" — especially when the Catholic Church, in particular, is facing significant obstacles both financial and scandalous in places as far-reaching as Germany, Ireland, and Wisconsin.

But she acknowledges that faith and religious teachings will always be in the political discussion. The question is whether dogma and belief spread themselves into the secular realm of backroom deals. "It's a fine line between standing up for what I believe is true about how we should live as a society because I am inspired by my faith" and prescribing "things in law should be aligned with my faith," says West. "Spending money to shape public policy to fit your religious tradition crosses the line."

sidebar: The Future of the Unholy Alliance

Stem-cell research arose as a controversy not long ago, because researchers were experimenting with embryonic stem cells, which required destroying embryos (which were usually surplus eggs fertilized through artificial insemination, and later donated by their parents). That furor has largely quieted down, mainly it turns out stem cells donated by consenting adults have a lot more promise than previously thought — nearly as much, in many cases, as embryonic ones. Now scientists are focusing on understanding and expanding the capabilities of adult stem cells; at some point they may seek to return to embryonic work, but that may be decades in the future.

Or will there even be an Unholy Alliance to take on issues like this?

Fred Karger, a leader in the movement to expose the exact size of religious contributions to political campaigns, says he thinks the alliance "will unravel without any outside help," observing the Mormons' public retreat in the face of public outrage after the Prop 8 campaign. "The Catholic Church will be right behind them," Karger predicts, saying that even though their efforts succeeded in repealing same-sex marriage in Maine, the backlash did "tremendous damage to their reputation."

We should be so lucky.

sidebar: Pulling Political Churches' Nonprofit Exemptions
We might think we're safe from this religious injection into politics, because of the Constitution's separation of church and state. But there's a loophole: while the government cannot favor one religious tradition over another, there is no legal structure that prevents religious groups from wielding political might. (Some Republicans have, at various times in the past decade, introduced federal legislation that would actually protect the ability of churches to spend on political matters. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten anywhere — yet.)

Religious organizations, at present, get automatic certification from the IRS as nonprofit groups. There are some rules limiting how much political activity nonprofits can have, but churches — most notably the Catholic Church — don't pay those rules much mind, preferring instead to wield significant political muscle both in person and with money.

Particularly in response to the religious war waged on same-sex marriage, there have been a number of public campaigns to revoke nonprofit status for churches that break the rules.

Some — including the Phoenixin a 2009 editorial — have argued that religious groups should have to apply for tax-exempt status (rather than automatically receiving it), and that their lobbying efforts and related spending should be made public.

But perhaps the best measure is with a relatively simple, possibly administrative change. At present, IRS rules limit only religious groups' efforts in support or opposition to "any candidate for elective public office." But same-sex marriage is not a candidate; it is a referendum question. If the IRS prohibition were expanded to ban church efforts regarding, say "any question put to the voting public on a ballot," the stakes would be raised, and the enforcement much clearer.

sidebar: The Keys to Heaven Can Make For Good Fundraising
How much money can the Unholy Alliance bring to bear on campaigns? In California, reports have estimated that as much as half of the $42 million spent to support Prop 8 came from organized religion, or from individuals inspired by appeals from conservative church leaders.
In Maine, the Unholy Alliance and its members gave $2.7 million of the total $3.1 million in cash and in-kind donations generated by Stand for Marriage Maine, according to official campaign-spending reports on file with the state. (As far as organizations go, the National Organization for Marriage, which has been linked to the Mormon Church, gave $2 million; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave another $570,000, including more than $250,000 from dioceses elsewhere in the country. The national Knights of Columbus Catholic service organization gave $50,000. And the evangelical-supported Focus on the Family gave another $120,000.)

But that's not even close to their fundraising capacity. "It's unlimited. It's as big as they want it to be," says Fred Karger, an activist seeking to expose the exact amounts religiously motivated donors have contributed to banning gay marriage. Donations can often be channeled through churches to make them tax-deductible, Karger observes.

And some donors have effectively unlimited resources. Naming vastly wealthy evangelicals Howard Ahmanson Jr. and John Templeton Jr., Karger says they would write checks for any amount, as long as their names were not connected to the funds.

For them — and for everyone — Karger jokes, " 'Give us all your worldly goods or eternity is in jeopardy' is a very effective fundraising tool."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tee-Partee Lohjik: Tyme fer moore lernin'

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Much sport has been made of the hilariously misspelled signs created and proudly displayed at rallies by barely literate Tea Partiers. But far more serious are their apparent deficits in basic math, science, ethics, and social studies, not to mention logic. The results of a recent New York Times/CBS News poll suggest several areas for possible re-education.

ON GOVERNMENT SPENDING (LOGIC) The percentage of Tea Partiers who live in households with Medicare and Social Security recipients is higher than in the overall population, and 62 percent of them say Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers. But 67 percent of them would favor having a smaller government, even if it meant cutting domestic programs — including Social Security and Medicare.

ON POPULAR OPINION (MATH) Though the poll — the margin of error of which is three percentage points — finds that just 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, 84 percent of Tea Partiers think their movement’s views “generally reflect the views of most Americans.”

ON RACISM (SOCIAL STUDIES) Perhaps they are the real post-racists: 73 percent of Tea Partiers think black people and white people have equal opportunities to “get ahead” in today’s society.

ON PUBLIC EDUCATION (ETHICS) Sixty-five percent of them send their kids to public school (which is less than the 70 percent rate in the overall population).

ON CLIMATE ISSUES (SCIENCE) More than half — 51 percent — of Tea Partiers think global warming will not have a serious impact on human existence, and a further 15 percent don’t think it’s happening at all.

There are, however, some unexpected bright spots highlighted in the poll.

ON SURVIVALISM Many fewer Tea Partiers (only five percent) than we might have feared have actually gone the bunker route and purchased gold coins or bars in the past 12 months.

ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Sixteen percent of Tea Partiers want same-sex couples to have the right to marry, and 41 percent want civil unions legalized.

It also seems noteworthy that this movement doesn’t have much youth power: a full three-quarters of them are over age 45, with 29 percent over age 64. Nor, for as passionate as they seem, do they offer much commitment: 78 percent of people who consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement have neither donated money nor attended a rally or meeting. Nor much tech-savvy: 68 percent of them haven’t even visited a Web site associated with the movement. (Perhaps, like their ideological brother Chief Justice John Roberts, they don’t actually know how to use a computer.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quake Response: Boston organization fighting good fight in Haiti

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Good news from Haiti: the catastrophic earthquake that struck this Caribbean nation last week did no damage to the 10 Haitian-run hospitals and clinics aided by the Boston-based charity Partners in Health (PiH). Each of the 10, which offer free care to all comers — and were founded by Paul Farmer of Harvard's medical school, in conjunction with Haiti's health ministry — swung into action immediately after the quake struck.

Bad news from Haiti: those clinics and hospitals, which are staffed almost entirely by Haitians, are in the rugged rural interior of the country, hours — and in some cases days, on rough roads and mountain paths — of travel from the hard-hit capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Even worse news from Haiti: conditions in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere are so terrible, and medical help so scarce, that quake victims, some with grievous injuries requiring amputation, have no choice but to make the difficult overland journey to the PiH centers.

"It's been a horrifying catastrophe," says Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder, whose 2003 best-selling book Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House) introduced the world to the dauntless, tireless Farmer and his organization.

Many outlets offering relief and support to Haitians were headquartered in Port-au-Prince and were effectively decapitated by the January 12 quake, which struck just 16 miles west of the capital city and measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. But PiH, which employs more than 100 Haitian doctors and thousands of community health workers, is intact — its major hospital is in Cange, several hours northeast of Port-au-Prince.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, that hospital has expanded to make use of space in a neighboring church and a school. "There are patients all over the place," says Kidder of the reports he and PiH are getting from the clinics, adding that PIH is also striving to send medical workers to the urban-relief efforts even while handling the massive influx of new cases.

Kidder, who lives in Massachusetts and Maine, is adamant that Haiti needs not just relief money, but a societal change in which its people have more of a say in how the nation develops. He has argued that the international aid now pouring into one of the world's poorest countries be the start of a new chapter for Haiti, rather than just a temporary boon to assist with rescues.

Many people — worried about the looting and civil disorder in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake — are skeptical of giving aid and about Haiti's future, but Kidder asks, "how would New Yorkers, or any Americans, respond" in identical circumstances, with no food, shelter, water, and only the clothing on their backs — and with no certainty that loved ones were safe, or even alive?

The relief effort has also been hindered by the racism and religious intolerance of those like evangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the tragedy on a "pact with the devil." Kidder's response to Robertson? "If there's an Antichrist, then he might be it. You can quote me on that."

Kidder remains hopeful about Haiti's future, but only so long as international support is both generous and concerned about the long term. He recalls the Haitian proverb that inspired the title of his book on Farmer, PiH, and Haiti: "Beyond mountains there are mountains." Haitians use this proverb in two ways, he says: "There is no end to obstacles — but there is no end to opportunities."

To make a donation to Partners in Health, visit