Volume 3, Number 76
30 June 2003

How Political Should a Friends' Meeting be?

Dear Friends,

One First Day a year ago I stepped out of Worship into the lobby of the Meeting House, to be greeted by a petition urging Congress to increase the minimum wage. Friends were signing it one after another. I thought, however, it would be well first to study the historical record.

The first minimum wage law was passed in 1938, at 25 cents an hour, and the minimum has been going up every few years since then — almost yearly between 1969 and 1981. "At each point the unemployment rate for black teenagers tended to ratchet higher. By 1981, the unemployment rate for black teenage males averaged 40.7% — four times its early 1950 level. ... That year, the Federally-mandated Minimum Wage Study Commission concluded that each 10% rise in the minimum wage reduces teenage employment by between 1% and 3%" (Bartlett in The Wall Street Journal, 5/27/99).

Despite its wide acclaim among Friends and others on the "liberal left," in fact the minimum wage harms the very persons it is intended to advocate. A higher minimum wage causes employers to use machines instead of labor, thus creating unemployment. With a greater supply of unemployed labor than demand for it, employers pick and choose. They tend to choose white males. That is why black teenage unemployment went up alongside the minimum wage. For the same reasons, the minimum wage is biased against other teenagers and women. It also makes the job search more difficult for women just off welfare.

In 1998 two charitable organizations in New York were formed to find "entry" employment for homeless street people, hiring them for temporary work in sanitation, security, office, and laundry, while helping them find better jobs. They were driven out of business because they could not cover their costs and pay the minimum wage. Their clients were thrown back on to the street. Other businesses have been also driven into bankruptcy because they could not afford the minimum wage.

I was enraged that my Meeting House should be used as a political platform for a cause that offended me. I thought we should have had a discussion about this first, so I could present my viewpoint. To the best of my knowledge, since Kenneth Boulding died I am the only economist in Boulder Meeting. Yet I was not consulted before the petition appeared in the lobby.

Another instance has occurred this year. The Federal Communications Commission was proposing to end the rules that prevent owners of a broadcast station from owning daily newspapers in the same market, and other similar restrictions. A protest was mounted, arguing that if the new rules passed, "one company in a community would be able to own all the main newspapers, TV and radio stations, the cable system, and the principal Internet access company." A table was set up in the lobby of Boulder Meeting to urge Friends to write letters in opposition.

What, a monopoly of the news? In this day of instant communication around the world, "You gotta be kidding!" First, if someone tries to monopolize the news in my community, there is nothing to prevent someone else from setting up a competing news company. This is already happening. "A group of Democrats are forming a political research institute in an effort to counter what they see as the domination of the national political debate by well-organized, well-financed conservatives at the White House" (New York Times, 6/5/03). That's the way the market works. Instead of bottling up an offensive group, start a competing one that is not offensive and persuade the public to "buy" its product.

But second, if I don't like the local news "monopoly," I can tune my TV to Chicago, Paris, or Hong Kong, or I can read The New York Times, or Le Monde, or The Bangkok Times. How can anyone monopolize the Internet even if there is only one server in a community? I can find The Bangkok Times or The South China Morning Post on any Internet Service Provider, whether there is only one or if there are ten. If only one, and it charges too much, others will appear. That's the way the market works.

Technology is advancing so that many broadcasters may use the same bands, just as many ships may use the same ocean. Thus no monopoly would be possible. Also, professional newscasters (as opposed to political) want to make money. The way to do that might just be to give the people what the people want: diversified news. Why are we so scared of that?

There may be good reasons for merging news companies. Management efficiencies, for example, or eliminating wasteful duplication. Maybe newspapers and TV need to merge to bring us the latest technology in news gathering, or even to stay in business. How do Quakers know enough about this to write a letter? How much damage can we do to a newspaper about to go under, discharging all its workers? These are matters in which Friends should be individually concerned, writing to newspapers, etc., under their own names. They are not matters for the Meeting to use its facilities to promote. If we do so anyway, we diminish our credibility on the issues of real importance, such as war and human rights.

When I raised this question at business meeting, lo and behold, I was alone. I was told that if I didn't want to sign the petition, I didn't have to. If I didn't want to write a letter, no one was forcing me. Friends did not want their "rights" (to the use of the Meeting House) restricted. Friends live their lives the same spiritual way wherever we are, I was told. Here is an excerpt of the minute that was passed in the May 2003 business meeting (with Jack Powelson the only one who stood aside):

"Friends considered how one might distinguish between leadings of the spirit, and those of a political nature. It was agreed that this distinction was difficult and strikes a nerve on several levels. Yet, an individual cannot define this for the group, and the group cannot define this for an individual. It was emphasized that Friends are seekers, and that they don't want to create rules about what is permitted in the search for truth. We were reminded that Jesus spoke of the law written in hearts, as opposed to the law written in books. [My Note: Jesus also overturned the tables of money changers in the temple.] It was pointed out that it should not matter whether issues were discussed on the sidewalk or in the Meeting House, as "we are not a steeplehouse but a peoplehouse."

Why is it so difficult to distinguish a spiritual concern from a political one? In a spiritual concern, such as killing (in war or otherwise) or cruel punishment, we know we cannot do it — our heart tells us so — regardless of any analysis or reasoning. In a political concern, such as the two mentioned here, analysis is necessary to tell what is right.

I stick to my belief that there is a time and place for everything. There are certain things we do in the office, other things in the living room, and still others in the bathroom. We confuse them at our peril. If we cannot distinguish between the political and the spiritual in the lobby of the Meeting house, presumably we also cannot distinguish them in the ministry during Worship. Would a Friend be eldered for saying in Worship, "God has moved me to vote for George W. Bush, and I urge other Friends to follow my example?"

There are many places where political messages may be proclaimed: letters to the editor, placards on the mall, and so on. The Meeting House should not be one of them.

Since we are a peace church, I favor petitions on spiritual matters, such as war and peace, armaments, and clearly-distinguished human rights. But outside of these, no petition or letter writing should take place within the halls of the Meeting House without some prior discussion and (preferably) approval by the business meeting. In an emergency, a short business meeting may be called at the conclusion of any Meeting for Worship.

In my protest against politics in the Meeting, I have been reminded that Friends are indeed political — oh yes, we tried to stop the Crimean War, and we opposed slavery. So do we see no difference between war and the ownership of human beings on the one hand and regulation of the media on the other?

Would politics within the Meeting House be equally obnoxious to me if they were for issues that I favored? Yes, they would be, so long as there is no sense of the meeting on the issue on hand.

A separate questionnaire will be sent to readers of TQE to ask about your feelings on this matter. When you receive it, I would appreciate hearing your response.

Sincerely your friend,


Questionnaire Results

Many thanks to the 100 of you who answered my question on the political use of the Meeting House. I compiled the replies and sent them to all subscribers. The results, in brief:

YES 20
NO 59
(ambiguous) 21

Readers' Comments

Excellent! I heartily agree.

— Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.

That's a good one. I too am upset by that.

— Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Thank you, Jack Powelson, for speaking. You have given me a ray of hope for Friends.

— Bill Martin, Venice, FL (formerly Friends Meeting of Washington)

Bravo Jack. As a fellow economist I greatly appreciate your courageous effort to stand up for the unpopular truth about minimum wage laws. Unfortunately, the voice of objective logic is too often a cry in the wilderness amongst otherwise well-intentioned liberals who already have their minds made up on such issues. I am reminded of the ostensibly altruistic labor laws in Venezuela, where I lived for 30 years, which forced employers to grant 6 months maternity leave to women. I will give you three guesses as to what happened to the job market for young, married women and the first two don't count. As for the issue of politics in the Meeting House, I think you are right that political petitions should be discussed outside and Friends should be given the chance to hear opposing views. In this particular case, I would guess (and hope) that many who signed the petition in question would not have had they been exposed to the arguments you so eloquently raise. Keep up the good work.

— Dave Holmes, Ph.D, Economics, UCLA, 1969. Friend recently returned from Venezuela and currently without a meeting.

The minimum wage issue is an ongoing reaction to inequality and lack of fairness in just compensation in our capitalist society. It is likely not a perfect response, for some of the reasons you cite, but sells politically to politicians unwilling to face the real issues and shortcomings of capitalism with its excessive foundation on "me" rather than "we".

Perhaps better than arguing about the minimum wage would be a future TQE discussion on putting the brakes on the obscene CEO and upper management salaries and perks in public corporations.

Yes, the FCC needs to regulate for the public good these extremely powerful forces that have huge influence on the flow and content of information in our society.

— Rich Andrews. Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.

Note: These are only excerpts from Rich's very long letter. I do not usually have time to answer letters, but I did in this case, because Rich is a friend and Friend from my own Meeting. Here is what I wrote in response:

Rich: You are right, that your response is too long for publishing. However, in previous TQEs I have addressed the questions of (1) low wages, (2) excessive CEO compensation, and (3) monopoly (media included) Briefly, the answers are: (1) train workers so they will increase their productivity to demand higher wares, (2) train more persons with CEO capabilities, so there will be more competition among the CEO ranks, and (3) start competing enterprises to offset the monopolies.

Helping the economy requires hard work. You have identified the problems, but I fear your solutions are to pass laws that command the economy to be different from its natural course. Instead of improving its natural self, this merely creates the kind of tension as when a pot is about to boil over.

Since you and I both have the same sympathies, I wish we could get together to craft joint solutions for Quakers, instead of paper ones. This requires a lot of history and economics, which I have but you don't have. This is no reflection on you, because you are skilled in other ways. Instead of arguing with me, it would make more sense to listen to the reasons behind my judgments just as you would listen to a cardiologist, as I presume you would if you had a heart attack. It is no reflection on either of us that we are not cardiologists. But go to the expert instead of making up your own layperson's diagnoses, which most Quakers do in history and economics. If you don't like the judgments of one specialist, get a second opinion; and a third and fourth, etc.

Your friend, Jack

I subscribe to all your assumptions but differ in conclusions. I'm not an economist, but I've thought about these issues. First, raising the minimum wage reduces job opportunities for those it is supposed to help. OK, it does. Is that worse than having a certain number of very, very bad jobs? I've decided it isn't. We need to train those unemployed people and when they do get a job, they should be able to live on it. Of course we have to deal with untrainable people, and that is a social problem we haven't addressed seriously. I wonder about the negative income tax idea, and I wonder what you think about it. Second, media concentration. Of course anyone can put out information, as you say, but it won't be read or listened to. We know that Germans embraced Hitler, and a few odd-ball disbelievers didn't and couldn't make any difference. Now Americans embrace Bush and all his policies, and all the dissent from alternative media can't change that either. Rules against concentration are the only means that can prevent a totalitarian outcome. It isn't here yet, and there is hope that things will change, but the danger is awful.

— Henry Helson, Vine St. Meeting, Berkeley, CA.

I too favor the negative income tax. It is a principal proposition in my book, The Moral Economy. — Jack

I agree firmly with your position. It is sad that our orthodox Muslims, Jews, and born-again Christians all share the counter position. They believe political and social behavior has been given to them from on high, and woe to all who disagree. Saddest of all is Ashcroft. To order armed raids on the cannabis clubs in California which were making pot available to sick, sometimes terminal patients is a very unchristian action.

— Dick Wolf, Coral Gables (FL) (Jack's college classmate, not a Quaker).

If you look at the research we have done on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (www.pym.org/support-and-outreach/making-new-friends) you'll see that although PYM Friends are quite diverse on some religious matters, they are quite narrow politically-- strongly liberal with upscale academic overtones. It is generally easier to get agreement on these political matters than on the religious ones-- and I believe Friends gravitate to the commonality in politics as a way of finding a comfortable common ground.

— Mark Cary, Middletown Meeting, Lima (PA).

I know the economic problems with raising the minimum wage. But at the same time, people who earn it aren't earning enough to live on. So you're between a rock & a hard place on this one. Is it better to give people jobs with starvation wages or deny them jobs at all? Either way, they aren't earning a living. There must be a better solution.

— Ms. Mouse

While I don't agree with your examples (I'm with famed liberal William Safire on media monopolies), I do agree that we Quakers have way too many political positions based on too few theological positions. Ours is, or should be, an inclusive religion.

— Signe Wilkinson, Chestnut Hill (PA) Friends Meeting

"Friends considered how one might distinguish between leadings of the spirit, and those of a political nature... It was pointed out that it should not matter whether issues were discussed on the sidewalk or in the Meeting House." Is that to say that there is no need to distinguish? The Meeting seems to have been led to solve this difficult problem by ignoring it.

— Wilfred Candler, Annapolis (MD) Friends Meeting.

Correlation is not causation.

— Charlie Thomas, Cascabel Worship Group, Tucson (AZ).

Note: True. The economist handles this matter by first seeking correlations, then looking for a theory as to whether one is the cause of the other. Sometimes no theory is found. In this case, however, it is more likely that minimum wages cause unemployment than vice-versa. What is your theory? — Jack

When I first bought Universal Woods, Inc., they were paying a little over the minimum wage and they were getting what they were paying for. It took several years for us to get the situation straightened out. We started training people. Some couldn't respond and they left us or were given unskilled jobs. Now we are paying wages starting at $30,000, including health care, and we are getting what we are paying for. When a customer has a quality issue, we can send a production worker out to communicate. On the other hand, I think we need to have some way of keeping people out of poverty. Without the minimum wage, some companies will take advantage. Should there be some kind of government dole to companies that are employing those who cannot contribute enough to earn a living wage?

— Lee B. Thomas, Jr., Friends Meeting of Louisville (KY).

Year before last I had the temerity to argue against increasing the minimum wage at the FCNL Annual Meeting. It was in a workshop rather than on the floor of the meeting, and I was told that wasn't the subject of the day anyway. My point then was that when times are good, the minimum wage has little impact. At the time, McDonald's was paying over $6.00 an hour in Decatur, IL, which has relatively high unemployment.

When times are bad, it costs jobs, for all the reasons Jack has pointed out. It occurs to me now that the minimum wage, and the pressure it creates to raise wages all the way up the ladder, may contribute to the flight of jobs to low-wage countries. How much higher a material standard than Bangladesh should we expect? After all, the manufacturers are in business for monetary profit, not to make their workers happy.

— Allen Treadway, Decatur (IL) Meeting


Stop the Guantanamo Inquisition

The Bush administration has placed itself beyond the rule of law. Our treatment of war prisoners in Guantanamo Bay violates the Geneva Conventions and the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment. These violations weaken international law and the good reputation of the United States.

Over 660 people, most of them taken on the battlefields of Afghanistan, are imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. Some of them are civilians who have not taken up arms against the United States. Some of them were 16 years old or less when captured. Most have been held for eighteen months, extensively interrogated and allowed only two 15 minute exercise periods a week. Held without lawyers, they have been seen only by their guards, interrogators and the International Red Cross, whose report has not been released. There has been no attempt to determine whether each individual is or is not a Prisoner of War. This prolonged inquisition by the Bush administration departs from the American tradition of prisoner treatment.

These prisoners come from more than forty countries. Secretary Powell has written the Pentagon requesting the prompt processing of the prisoners because their detainment is interfering with international cooperation to prevent terrorism. Preparations are now under way for the trial and possible execution of a small number of prisoners for war crimes. A courtroom is being built at Guantanamo for their trial by a special three judge military court. The rules of evidence are also special to this court. For example, the fact that evidence cannot be authenticated or is hearsay is not grounds for barring it and all communications between civilian lawyers and their clients may be monitored by intelligence agents. The plans for the more than six hundred other prisoners against whom there are no criminal charges remain unknown.

The war between the United States and the government of Afghanistan is long over and whatever information may have been gained about terrorism is now outdated. There is no reason to continue to hold these prisoners in opposition to the rules of war and the opinions of other nations. While the Republican administration is indifferent to the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law, the American people must be concerned. Many millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on housing, guarding and now trying these prisoners. By setting an example of arbitrary, illegal treatment of prisoners we have endangered our own service people should they be captured in the future. This Republican inquisition has tarnished our international reputation for democracy and the rule of law. We must let our representatives know that we oppose this endless inquisition.

— Peter Cohen, Santa Barbara (CA).


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting, Assistant Principal Editor.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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