Popes For All Seasons

The refugees, tens of thousands, teeming across Europe, sought nothing more than a safe haven and an end to violence, life for their children.

As soon as the pope recognized the scope of the looming refugee crisis, he appealed emotionally to European and American leaders. He called on Catholic dioceses to take responsibility and welcome a strong quota of people to save them.

Some leaders listened, others did not. The president of the United States agreed to admit some thousands of refugees — he faced opposition from ultra-conservatives in Congress if he tried to do more.

The year was 1938, seventy-seven years ago. Substitute the names and we go back to the future.

Pope Pius XI, a relative progressive, stood out from the conservatives around him and decried attacks on the Jews.

Today, Pope Francis calls on every Roman Catholic parish, on all people of conscience, to aid Middle Eastern refugees:

“Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees — fleeing death by war and famine, and journeying towards the hope of life — the Gospel calls, asking of us to be close to the smallest and forsaken. To give them a concrete hope,” he said. “And not just to tell them: ‘Have courage, be patient!’ ”

President Roosevelt was hamstrung by people in Congress and their constituencies: American xenophobia warned that there likely would be terrorist agents among prospective asylum-seekers.

On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, I was reminded about the parallels of history. I wrote about Pope Pius XI and his last minute attempts to challenge Hitler, Mussolini and anti-Semitism in The Pope’s Last Crusade.

A new generation of refugees faces slurs and racist attacks–and only occasionally a welcome sign. Jews then were fleeing Hitler and Germany. Among the ironies of history, Syrians, Iraqis and other Middle Eastern refugees now find Germany among the most welcoming and hospitable countries.

How does a papal message or a pope’s moral stance convert into real change?

Notes on Pope Francis’s visit.

Among the many opinion pieces on Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, George Will’s take on the pontiff is notable for its shrill, ultimately absurd complaints.

He writes in The Washington Post that the pope

“…stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”

Will’s frothing rejection of the pope is an argument based on a ridiculous false premise, that Francis represents a rejection of modernity and all advancements in agriculture and capital development in the last century. Nonsense. Will sets up a straw man and then tries to beat it down as much as he would try to recreate President Obama as a socialist.

Gerald Posner, also writing in the Washington Post, does make an important point, when he renews his call for Francis to open the Vatican files on World War II:

“If Francis does not act to open the Vatican’s Holocaust-era files, they could stay sealed for a very long time. It took more than 400 years for the church to release some of its Inquisition files. And it was not until 2007 — after more than 700 years — that the Vatican cleared the Knights Templar of a heresy charge and opened the trial records.”

Pope Pius XI is little recalled for his bold stance against Hitler and anti-Semitism. But his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was elected in 1939 as his successor, Pope Pius XII. Pius XII was as different from Pius XI as Francis is from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

How much support did Pius XII give to the Nazis and at what profit? Posner asks.

Francis, progressive though he may be, has been equivocal on previous pledges to open the files. Posner writes:

“Those sealed records may help settle debate about whether the wartime pope, Pius XII, could have done more to prevent the Holocaust. They could also resolve questions about the extent to which the Vatican did business with the Third Reich, particularly whether it invested in German and Italian insurance companies that earned outsize profits by escheating the life insurance policies of Jews sent to the death camps.”

Pius XI then and Francis now spoke out for morality and change. Pius XI was praised by Jewish leaders in the United States at the time, even though his advocacy came late in his papacy. Pius XII muted his predecessor’s attempts to attack anti-Semitism.

Francis has hinted at major changes at the Vatican. But as George Santayana always reminds us: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


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Stuck on the Ideological Divide


The week closes with the ongoing sense that many Americans are not tuned into dealing with the crucial issues that really face us. The old question resurfaces: where is the outrage?

I have been passionate in posting and commenting about the underlying issues surrounding the Amtrak tragedy outside Philadelphia. I am outraged that such an accident could happen at all. For me, the key is infrastructure – why hasn’t the government already pushed completion of Positive Train Control?

I’ll admit a bias. I live in Washington and the response and coverage of the train crash has been strong among media types who — like me – live and work along the Northeast Corridor and use Amtrak all the time.

So in the flurry of retweets and shares this week from Daily Beast and The New Yorker and The New York Times, I was slowed down when one of my Facebook buddies–not a product of the Northeast–questioned the basic notion that Amtrak should be “subsidized.”

Here’s how the story came down:

I had just shared an item on Facebook from the New York Times:

One Day After Wreck, Increased Funding for Amtrak Fails in a House Panel.


WASHINGTON — The bodies had not yet been fully recovered from theAmtrak derailment in Philadelphia before Capitol Hill erupted hours later into its usual partisan clash over how much money to spend on the long-struggling national rail service.

My Facebook contact, who I know to be a thoughtful fellow, left this comment:

I’m not convinced that the government should subsidize travel for parts of the country. It seems that Amtrak actually makes a profit in the Northeast (~$250 million a year), but its losses elsewhere are much larger (I think 6 or $800 million). I don’t think keeping Amtrak afloat everywhere is a wise use of government funds.

Rightly or wrongly, I perceived that comment to come from the political right. I answered gently, wary of getting into an argument that would never end:

It’s part of rational infrastructure development and rehab which should include nationwide regional success stories like the Northeast Corridor — Atlanta // Tennessee major cities // Florida major cities // California and many more. Try taking a train from Chicago to Cincinnati. The country is 3/4 of a century behind on railroads. Admittedly it is a much larger divisive argument — does spending money for infrastructure fuel progress, jobs and progress?

I then dropped in another shared file, this time from NPR:

“One key safety feature was missing from the stretch of track where an Amtrak passenger train going more than 100 mph derailed and killed seven people.

“Investigators say that if positive train control had been installed on that stretch, the technology could have automatically slowed the train and perhaps saved lives.”

My Facebook friend had an answer for that:

      I’m not saying that it’s not a conversation worth having. If the federal is going to spend money on infrastructure, however, I’m not convinced that increasing subsidies to an unprofitable, private business is the wisest choice. Even if it is, I don’t think the accident near Philadelphia is a sound launching point for that argument. Indeed, I would wager that had the government given more money to Amtrak in the name of infrastructure, it wouldn’t have prevented this accident.
     Although it’s not in the article you linked, I heard on NPR this afternoon that it would cost *billions* to outfit all of Amtrak’s rails with Positive Train Control.

I decided not to answer, at least until now. I saw an argument without end.

One of the dangers of social media and the Internet is that people tend to flock to birds of their own feather. I worry often about preaching to my own choir – and also about bothering to pick a fight with those who will never stray from their own ideological lines.

That all said, my answer to my friend would be: billions of dollars doesn’t sound like too much to fix the system. In fact, I agree with the argument that we need to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure.

Does the American Society of Civil Engineers fly a communist banner when it says in its infrastructure scorecard that the United States earns an average D+ on questions of infrastructure? It says we face an array of crumbling disgraces that threaten the future – bridges that are crumbling, rails like Amtrak that have delayed maintenance programs – run down the list from safe drinking water to schools to hazardous waste.

The organization says the United States needs to spend more than three trillion dollars this decade for crucial upgrades. It says that “infrastructure is America’s backbone.”

I agree with economists such as Paul Krugman that the 2009 stimulus plan that followed the disastrous Bush era-induced economic collapse should have been vastly more ambitious, the equivalent of a modern New Deal recovery. Building infrastructure fuels jobs, investment, a cycle of progress.

There is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in saying such things. I suspect my Facebook buddy will deeply reject what I say. And I know that the broken political system we face – run by “I’m-no-scientist” Congressional leaders and end-of days-presidential candidates– has everything to do with stagnation, with virtually no chance of infrastructure improvements anytime soon.

So I write this hesitantly, figuring that some of the usual subjects will agree and hit the like button, while others will come out screaming. To what end? There is no national debate – there are only sectorized talking points. Too often, what passes as news is handled–never moderated–by cable television discourse that looks for noise and ratings, rarely with the focus on civility, compromise and common sense.

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Them Bones — Cervantes Warns: “Don’t Touch.”

Interesting and somewhat creepy news from Madrid –– Researchers have apparently found the remains of Miguel de Cervantes — 399 years after his death –and are sifting through bones.Cervantes

A team of forensic scientists in Madrid say they have located the remains of Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547­ 1616), but have stopped short of a definitive identification given the lack of DNA evidence…(EL PAIS in ENGLISH] [EL PAIS IN SPANISH]

Toward the end of his great masterpiece, Don Quixote, Cervantes issues a warning to grave robbers in Don Quixote’s name that could serve as an admonition as well to current day meddlers:

If by chance you come to know him, be warned, leave be the weary and long-moldering bones of Don Quixote, and make no move, against all the privileges of death, to carry them unto Old Castille, making him rise from the
grave where in reality and truth he lies extended at full length, powerless to make any third expedition or new departure….” Don Quixote [Part II Chapter 74]

“si acaso llegas a conocerle, que deje reposar en la sepultura los cansados y ya podridos huesos de don Quijote, y no le quiera llevar, contra todos los fueros de la muerte, a Castilla la Vieja, haciéndole salir de la fuesa donde real y verdaderamente yace tendido de largo a largo, imposibilitado de hacer tercera jornada y salida nueva…” El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha [II, Cap. 74]

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Substance and Reason? Netanyahu Before Congress

Netanyahu (NBC)

Netanyahu (NBC)



Make no mistake, the substance of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today is likely irrelevant – the fact that he is delivering the speech is all that matters.

Many Israelis and Americans– including those who would ordinarily be his supporters – oppose the fact that Netanyahu delivers a speech in cahoots with John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, and in defiance of all protocol and diplomatic precedent.

He will oppose negotiations with Iran, he will warn about Iranian terrorism, he will warn about a bomb – the same warnings from the same neo-conservative cabal he and his Likud Party consort with. These are the people that brought us the trillion-dollar debacle that was the Iraq War.

These are the same people that would attack Iran – even though Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies and the Joint Chiefs of Staff reject the idea.

Netanyahu will stand before Congress in defiance of the President of the United States – no matter how he denies that and no matter what he says.

He will propose, perhaps, increased sanctions and no negotiations. He does not represent reason—he stands for war.


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Questions about oil, OPEC and fracking

People tend to think about the price they spend per gallon on gas as a given far out of the control of mere mortals. Oil suppliers rule the day as does the futures market;  despite political rhetoric from all sides, government rarely if ever tackles the issue. The policy is ad hoc, and renewal sources (wind and solar) suffer when petroleum prices are low.1280px-West_Texas_Pumpjack

Here are some questions and answers [Aided by a primer written by the Economist in December.]. Oil price was $70 per barrel then, and may be forced down close to $10 per barrel.

Q: Why is the price of oil and gasoline plummeting?

OPEC is leading the way, especially Saudi Arabia. “…the Saudis and their Gulf allies have decided not to sacrifice their own market share to restore the price. They could curb production sharply, but the main benefits would go to countries they detest such as Iran and Russia.”

Q: Why would they do that?

In part, to reassert OPEC dominance in the oil market. Petroleum is power. “Saudi Arabia can tolerate lower oil prices quite easily. It has $900 billion in reserves. Its own oil costs very little (around $5-6 per barrel) to get out of the ground.” The United States and other oil consumers tend to tread lightly on negotiating oil price with Saudi Arabia and OPEC.

Q: Who loses?

Countries such as Russia, Iran, Venezuela and other troubled economies highly dependent on oil revenue. But the U.S. fracking industry also suffers, which can’t expand and grow when extraction prices dip below $60-$70 per barrel. Fracking involves pulverizing the earth with high pressure water to release the natural gas held in abundant oil shale supplies. It is a booming industry, the 21st century equivalent of a Gold Rush.

Q: What’s good about fracking?

Theoretically, it is a step toward U.S. energy independence. It produces major economic changes in the areas where oil shale supplies are plentiful.

Q: What’s bad about fracking. Environmental issues

Two interesting headlines from the news recently:

“After 11 quakes in the last two days – with one registering at a 3.6 – Irving, Texas’ sudden onset tremor problem might be the fracking industry’s nightmare.
There’s a monster lurking under Texas, beneath the sand and oil and cowboy bones, and it’s getting a little restless after a 15 million year nap.”


“Not long after two mild earthquakes jolted the normally steady terrain outside Youngstown, Ohio, last March, geologists quickly decided that hydraulic fracturing operations at new oil-and-gas wells in the area had set off the tremors.” Now a detailed study has concluded that the earthquakes were not isolated events, but merely the largest of scores of quakes that rattled the area around the wells for more than a week.”

Q: Name the world’s largest oil producer.

The United States outstripped Saudi Arabia in 2014 as the world’s largest oil producer. The United States has been the world’s largest natural gas producer since 2010.

Q: What are the components of gasoline price:

About two thirds of the price is based on crude oil prices. As of November, according to government statistics:

in percentages:  (rounding slightly less than 100 percent)

crude oil:        62.4

taxes                  14.6

refining              5.5

retailing          17.4


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Alan Gross’s Mission in Cuba: How Much Did the White House Know?: Newsweek

Alan Gross
Jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, right, poses for a picture during a visit with Cuban Jewish Community leader Adela Dworin, center, and David Prinstein, vice president, at Havana’s Carlos J Finlay Military Hospital September 28, 2012. REUTERS


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The Pope and The U.S. Cuban Breakthrough: Gracias pero….

It’s fine to thank Pope Francis, but let’s not overplay the idea that the Vatican took a significant role in the historic change of U.S.-Cuban relations after more than half a century.

Officials in Washington and Havana have been in contact all along, albeit at lower levels through their periodic and sometimes secret meetings in Havana and Washington.  They didn’t need an intermediary–they needed a political moment, and the timing is perfect.

It is great that the pope could provide a meeting room, write some letters to presidents Obama and Castro and express his concern on humanitarian grounds for Alan Gross and the other prisoners on both sides. But the Vatican involvement is probably little more than diplomatic cover. Cuba is a Catholic country, the pope is seen as a progressive peacemaker; perhaps the idea of his participation soothes the animus of a few Cuban exiles in Miami with the inference that President Obama listened to a higher power.pope and obama

Neither did the countries need to meet in Canada, other than for the sake of following through on diplomatic protocol.

Rarely have two countries known one another as well as do the United States and Cuba. The change in relations has its own moment. First, President Obama can do it now without expending much political capital. He need not face elections again and taking this step right after the midterm elections can cushion the eventual Democratic presidential candidate from what he has done. Meanwhile, the profile of Senator Robert Menendez, one of the key opponents to a modern rethinking of Cuban policy, is on the wane. He will move aside as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Republicans take over in January.

In addition, a persistent domestic political problem for Democrats is wasting away with time.  Florida International University’s most recent survey about Cuban-American views of the embargo is emblematic of change. This year for the first time the tri-yearly survey shows that a majority of Miami Cubans support an end to the Cuban embargo. Florida was once a more troublesome problem. Democrats thought they could not win Florida’s 29 electoral votes without taking a strident anti-Castro position. President Obama, however, took Florida both in 2008 and 2012 with the support of Cuban-Americans.

Times are changing. The pope is Latin American and his support cannot hurt. But the eventual resumption of Cuban-American relations has everything to do with two presidents of two countries, one term-limited out and the other dealing with actuarial tables.

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