White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Five members of the Obama dministration’s White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships have signed a letter urging the Obama Administration not to rescind regulations put in place near the end of the Bush Administration that expand conscience protections for health care providers.

The story is notable because the signatories have been roundly denounced by pro-lifers in the blogosphere and beyond for their support of Obama.  Whatever one thinks of their decision to support Obama (I also supported Obama), they clearly do not intend to let the access that their support has purchased go to waste. 

In addition to the letter regarding the concience protections, Jim Wallis has also spoken out on plans by some pro-abortion democrats to include abortion as part of health care reform. 

Moreover, the pro-lifers named to the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships have used their influence to convince Obama to support abortion reduction, and have even secure an expanded mandate for that Office that includes abortion reduction. See also here.

The pro-life movement is better off with representatives sitting at the table inside the current administration than it would be if the pro-abortionists hd a monopoly over the President’s ear.  The pro-life democrats in the Obama Administration won’t win all the battles, or even very many at all. But they will win a few, which is more than will be accomplished by simply denouncing Obama at every turn.  It is the nature of a two-party political system for the parties to rotate in and out of power.  For that reason, the pro-life movement is well advised to seek supporters within both political parties. 

Being a pro-life democrat is certainly a thankless calling.  Denounced as a sell out by the right, and attacked by the left as a faux Democrat, you must satisfy yourself with small victories.  But what else is there to do?  Its not like the only thing keeping abortion-on demand the law of the law is Jim Wallis and Doug Kmiec’s failure to vote Republican.

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Obama to do Immigration Reform in 2009

The New York Times reports that Obama plans to do immigration reform this year.  If true, this is great news.  I had assumed that imigrtion reform (as well as labor law reform) were mere campaign promises and that Obama was unlikely to follow-up once in office. 

The first paragraph of the article reads:

While acknowledging that the recession makes the political battle more difficult, President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

Much of the article is taken up with worries by Democrats that in taking up immigration reform duringg the current economic crisis and in the same year as Congress wil be taking up health care reform Obama is biting off more than he can chew, and the hopes of Republicans that they can use this issue to claw back some of the public support that they lost in recent years.  An assumption underlying both the worries and the hopes is that voters will be less sympathetic to the plights of undocumented immigrants because of the economic crisis, especially the high unemployment rate.  Perhaps.  But the counter-argument is that the opponents of immigration reform are more marginalized in Washington DC than at any time recent meory because they hitched their cause to the Republican party.  Supporters of reform need to strike now before the political opening created by the collapse of the Republic party closes.

Caldicot on Distributism

Caldecott has a go in Godspy here and here at reviving distributism as an ideal for how modern societies ought to be organized.  Caldecott says that distributism calls for a renewed emphasis on the importance of the family as the basic unit of society.  He also days that distributism calls for greater decentralization in politics and in the economy.  And, finally, he says that distributism calls for more restraint on consumption.  However, Caldecott’s version of distributism leaves out the most important part:  the redistribution of productive property so that every family owns a sufficient amount of productive property to make a decent fanily income with their own land or tools.

Distributists believed that there was something inherently unfair and unfree about an economy where the majority of people do not own the land and tools that they use to produce goods and services.  In both capitalism and state socialism the majority of the people do not own the land or tools that they use in production.  The distributists, therefore, proposed that land and tools be redistributed so that they werebroadly distributed throughout the society.

A version of distributism that leaves out the redistribution of productive capital becomes little better than a romantic revolt against modern technology and society, rather than a hard nosed examination of the economic conditions (broad distribution of productive capital) that make freedom possible and a serious attempt to reform society to secure those conditions in practice.

Brooks on the End of Philosophy

Here is an unpersuasive column by David Brooks on what he calls the end of philosophy, or at least the end of moral philosophy.

Brooks argues that recent developments in science have disproved the conception of moral reasoning that began with Socrates and Plato, in which we reason from general moral principles to particular moral judgements.  Brooks says that recent scientific research shows that we arrive at particular moral judgements intuitively rather than by reasoning to them from general moral principles.  Brooks also suggests that our moral intuitions are innate and that evolutionary psychology probably explains why we have the specific moral intuitions that we do have.

Brooks is attacking a stawman.  The philosophical tradition has never understood moral reasoning the way that Brooks characitures it in this column.  certainly, Socrates and Plato never suggested that we ordinarily derive particular moral judgements from general moral principles.  Indeed, the whole point of the early socratic dialogues was that most people generally cannot if asked explain how their particular moral judgements are derived from a set of coherent general moral principles.  Socrates thought this objectionable.  He believed that we ought to be able to state general moral principles that explain our particular moral judgements.  And, he thought that if we cannot provide general moral principles, then we cannot be said to know that our particular moral judgements are correct.  But there was never any notion in Socrates that people ordinarily derive their particular moral judgements from their knowledge of general moral principles. 

The context of the early Socratic dialoges was that people in Socrates time (as in our own) frequently disagreed with each other about particular moral judgements.  Socrates was looking for a method to resolve these disagreements.  The search for general moral principles was that method.  Socrates’ method assumes that most, but not all, of our particular moral judgements are consistent with the set of general moral principles that on reflection we endorse as correct, and that we can revise any of our particular moral judgements that are not consistent to bring them in line with these general moral principles.  Socrates never argued that we arrive at the bulk of our particular moral judgements by deriving them from general moral principles in the way that mathematicians derive theorems from axioms.

Brooks suggestion that our moral intuitions are explained by evolutionary psychology is especially pernicious.  On brooks account, it is not possible to resolve moral disagreement by any rational method or to revise our particular moral judgements based on rational  criticism.  Moral life becomes essentially arational and arbitrary.  (Some part of our moral intuitions might be innate.  But if all of our moral intuitions are innate, then reasoning and discussion become futile).

Strangely enough, towards the end of the column Brooks takes it all back.  He says that,

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

But if we can sometimes use reason to override our moral intuitions, then all Brooks is left to justify his enthusiasm is his characiture of the philosophical tradition.

EDIT:  Apparently .I’m not the only one to rise to the defense of philosophy.

Penn Plaza v. Pyett

Here is Penn Plaza v. Pyett, which holds that a labor union may waive employees right to sue for violations of statutory rights. Most labor contracts provide that disputes arising under the labor contract are subject to mandatory arbitration.  What the Court held is that an arbitration clause in a labor contract that makes not only disputes arising under the labor contract but also violations of statutory rights subject to mandatory arbitration, then the arbitration clause is enforceable against employees who try to sue in the courts for violations of statutory rights.

Pyett is an aweful decision.  Under traditional labor law, employees have no control over the grievance and arbitartion procedure, which “belongs” to the labor union.  The labor union deciedes whether to file a grievance, whether to process the grievance through the grievance procedure, whether to settle a grievance and on what terms, whether to submit the grievance to arbitration, and what evidence to present at  the arbitration hearing and what legal arguments to make there.  The attorny that represents the labor union owes a duty to the union not the employee.  The labor union does not represent just the individual, but tries to do what is best for the employees as a group.  The employee, as an individual, is only entitled to “fair representation” by the labor union.  Arbitrators are experts in interpreting labor contracts, they do not have any expertise in interpreting federal and state statutes.  Congress explicitly vested the right to interpret these statutes to Executive branch agencies such as the EEOC or the Department of Labor.  State statututes similary vest enforcement to state agencies. 

Pyett will create more tension at the bargaining table between labor unions and employers.  Employers now have a powerful incentive to seek an arbitration clause that waives the right to sue for violations of statutory rights.  Unions will be rightly very reluctant to agree to such waivers.

Wafer Watch

Here is an article that seems to suggest that Archbishop Wuerl, Washington DC, will deny communion to catholic politicians if there hometown bishop has asked them not to present themselves.

Here are my thoughts:

  • The Catholic Church has authoritatively taught that abortion is intrinsically wrong.
  • Therefore, all Catholics, including Catholic politicians, should be pro-life.
  • All Catholics, including Catholic politicians, who are not pro-life must voluntarily refrain from communion.
  • Catholic politicians that are not pro-life who persist in presenting themselves for communion may be denied communion at the discretion of their Bishop.  This isn’t a matter of partisan politics, but follows from the Catholic undertsanding of the teaching authority of the Church and the meaning of communion.  It is a pastoral matter, and a function of the Bishops teaching responsibility.  It is not necessary to protect the sacrament and keep it holy.
  • Catholics who are not politicians or public officials and who are not prolife should not ordinarily be denied communion even if they persist in presenting themselves for communion.  The scandal involved when a politician or public official defies Church teaching and yet persists in presenting themseves for communion is not present in the case of private individuals.
  • Catholics are not required to refrain from voting for pro-abortion candidates for public office when pro-life candidates are also running.
  • However,Catholics may not vote for pro-abortion candidates precisely because of their position on abortion.  This follows straightforwardly from the principles above that the Church has authoritatively taught that abortion is intrinsically wrong and that all Catholics should be pro-life.
  • Catholics may vote for a pro-abortion candidate because they think that on the whole that candidate is better than another candidate that is pro-life.  The reasons for doing so must be proportionate. 
  • Proportionate reasons are more likely to be present than many pro-life conservative Catholics think because elections have little impact on either abortion policy or the abortion rate.  What must be weighed in deciding if there are proprtionate reasons is not the serious of the abortion issue in the abstract, but, rather, the actual difference that the election will have on abortion policy and the abortion rate.  Conservateive Catholics also must keep in mind that Catholics who are on the left are likely to see their differences with conservative candidates on issues other than abortion as being very serious.
  • Catholics that vote for a pro-abortion candidate precisely because they are pro-abortion should volutarily refrain from presenting themselves for communion, but if they persist they should not ordinarily be denied.
  • Whether there is a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-abortion candidate despite their position on abortion is a prudential judgement.  Accordingly, Catholics may reasonably disagree about whether propertionate reasons exist in particular cases.  Catholics that vote for pro-abortion candidates despite their position on abortion have committed no sin and have no reason not to present themselves for communion or to be denied communion when they do so.

The new Treaty of Detroit

I have been doing some work recently concerning the recent agreement between the United Auto Workers and the Detroit Big Three auto companies regarding retiree health insurance. So, I thought I might try a post summarizing what happened and giving the reasons why the new employee VEBAs are attractive to the Union.

A few decades ago, the Union and the Big Three negotiated retiree health insurance. In return for less in wage increases the Big Three ageed to provide employees with health insurance after they retire. At the time, this benefit was not expected to be expensive and was structured by the Big Three on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The Big Three created funds, which are designated in the tax code as a Voluntary Employee Benefits Association (VEBA). The Big Three received tax breaks for putting money into the fund. These VEBAs were administered by the Big Three who remained ultimately responsible for paying for the benefits.

As health care costs have soared, and as the number of retirees entitled to benefits has incrased, the cost to the Big Three of retiree health insurance has become prohibitive. This has resulted in the Big Three wanting to either terminate retiree health insurance altogether or to substantially reduce benefits.

One obstacle to this is the retirees, who stand ready to file lawsuits challenging the right of the Big Three to terminate or reduce benefits. The retirees will argue that they received legally enforceable promises from the Big Three that retiree health insurance would be provided. There was a contract. A deal is a deal. The Big Three will claim that the retiree health insurance was provided with the understanding that it was a mere gratuity which could be terminated or modified at will by the Big Three. Litigation on this question in other industries has been inconsistent, with the employees sometimes winning and other times with the company winning.

One problem for the retirees is that even if there was a contract to provide retiree health insurance, that contract would do the retirees little good if the Big Three declared bankruptcy. Bankruptcy allows a company to not pay its creditors or to py them pennies on the dollar. If the Big Three declared bankruptcy, the retirees would have to get in line with the rest of the creditors, and would likely see their benefits terminated or substantially reduced. Of course the Big Three don’y want to declare bankruptcy for all sorts of reasons.

The agreement struck by the Unin and the Big Three involves the creation of an employee VEBA. Unlike the old VEBAs, the new employee VEBA would be controlled entirely by the employees and the Big Three would have no involvement. In exchange for an agreement to terminate the Big Three’s liability for retiree health insurance, they would hand over enough money to the new employee VEBA to prefund the benefits. The Big Three wold be freed of their responsibility to provide retiree health insurance. And, the retirees would receive a lump-sum payment sufficient, in theory, to pay for their benefits.

Of course, everything depends on how much money the Bog Three hand over to the employee VEBA and whether it is really sufficient to prefund the benefits. In calculating the amount of money that the Big Three must hand overThe Union, the Union and the Big Three used fairly optimistic assumptions about future increases in health care costs and future returns on investment. If those assumptions prove to be too optomistic, then the fund will evenually have to reduce benefits or run out of money altogether. Another problem is that part of the payment to the employee VEBA will come in the form of stock in the Big Three. There is no guarantee that the stock will be worth anything in the future.

So why would the Union agree to this? First, money in hand is better than empty and possibly unenforceable promises. There was no guarantee that the Big Three wouldn’t terminate or substantially reduce retiree health benefits on their own despite the risk of litigation (or that a judge wouldn’t rule in favor of the Big Three in the ensuing litigation). Second, the Big Three are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with the legacy costs of retiree health insurance being one of the thngs that might tip them over all the way into bankruptcy. If the Big Three do go into bankruptcy, the retirees will almost certaily loose their health insurance. The new employee VEBA is independent of the Big Three, so even if they do eventually wind up in bankruptcy the retirees will not loose the benefits. Third, even though the Big Three would no longer be responsible for retiree health benefits, the Union might still negotiate further payments to the employee VEBA in the future if it turned out that the fund needed more money. The Union would not be able to legally compel the Big Three to make such payments, but the Union has a lot of leverage with the Big Three independent of the legal system.

This is a pretty good outcome for the retirees. While it seems likely that the employee VEBA is not fully funded, so that reductions in benefits will be necessary in the future, the retirees are certainly better off with a one-time payment of moeny that does’t quite fully fund the employee VEBA than they were with a mere contract for the benefits.