Sunday, 24 April 2011

Heaven or Hell

The Malta Independent on Sunday

The referendum on divorce could just as well have been framed as a referendum choosing between heaven and hell.

The anti-divorce lobby is sprouting several heads, which, in one way or another, deliver the message that voting for the introduction of divorce will be a one-way ticket to hell. The latest denomination comes with the title “Kristu Iva, divorzju le’. One can hardly be more explicit in stating that voting for divorce is a repudiation of Christ.

I find such religious fundamentalism unappetising, to say the least. Of course the Church can and should guide its faithful to live their religion. Of course the Church can and should tell its followers that a religious marriage is an indissoluble bond and that no civil divorce will change that. But Malta is a civil state not a religious state. We are in the EU not in Iran.

There are many who choose to marry by civil rites only, without any religious ceremony. Why should the Church interfere about access to civil divorce for those who were only married by civil rites?

Let’s make one very clear distinction that must be made by those who seriously want to carefully weigh their decision before voting in the referendum. In spite of the impression to the contrary given by the anti-divorce lobby, if civil divorce is introduced as proposed, it will not automatically dissolve all existing marriages. Those who are happily married, by civil or Church rites or by both, can stay married irrespective of the introduction of civil divorce.

Divorce is not for the masses. Divorce is for the minority whose marriage has irretrievably broken down and who want to move on in life by remarrying or by giving their former partner the freedom to re-marry. At present, this divorce privilege is only available to those who are married to a non-resident or have enough time and money to take up residency in a foreign country until they get a divorce in their new country of residency and then have such divorce acknowledged by the Maltese courts. Divorce should be for the minority who needs it and not just for the privileged few who can afford it.

Even convinced Catholics have to take a responsible civil decision before voting in the referendum. As a fervent and practising Catholic one should be against divorce. But it should be a matter of choice not of imposition. Being against divorce is not necessarily being against its introduction. To be both a good Catholic and a responsible civil citizen one can be in favour of the introduction of responsible civil divorce but take a personal Catholic-inspired decision not to use it without denying its use to others who need it.

It is much like freedom of speech. As Voltaire famously said “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If the enlightenment that hit Voltaire in the 18th century were to hit Malta in the 21st, the anti-divorce lobby should argue, “we disapprove of divorce but will defend your right to have it”.

There is one argument that has been made by the anti-divorce movement that could, hypothetically, inspire enlightened minds to have a re-think about making divorce available on responsible terms and conditions to the minority that might need it. It is the argument of the common good. The argument goes that something which could be good for the minority could cause greater harm to society overall. Accordingly, in the interest of the common good, one is justified in denying minority needs or civil rights to which they are normally entitled.

But what exactly is “the common good”, and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society, including the introduction of civil divorce? The common good is a notion that originated over 2,000 years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.

The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment”. The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions and environments, on which we all depend, working in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, and unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system.

Is it reasonable and proper to classify the negation of responsible divorce on the principle of the common good?  My answer is an outright no. If we were talking of a Las Vegas type of divorce then the concept would gain ground. But here we are talking about conditional divorce only applicable to cases where marriage has irretrievably and irrefutably broken down. Also, to measure the common good one has to take into consideration whether the alternative to divorce contributes to or diminishes from the common good more than the introduction of divorce itself.

If someone can convincingly argue that the non-introduction of divorce will calm the trend for marriage breakdown, separation and the proliferation of unmarried families that are normal household units in every respect except wedlock, then I can start to appreciate the merits of continued abolishment of divorce for the common good. I have not heard anyone making such argument convincingly even though many of the anti-divorce arguments are premised on the fallacy that without divorce all Maltese families will live happily ever after.

Even if for argument’s sake one were to accept the common good argument as justification against the introduction of divorce, how can then one accept annulments that in practice are divorce ‘a la chiesa cattolica’? Would not annulments also be against the common good? 

Whether in 2011 or in 2021, divorce will hit our statute book when the age of enlightenment finally arrives or, in more practical terms, when its introduction will gain politicians more votes than denying it. The Church can do worse than see its future beyond the May referendum and make some deep soul searching to recognise two basic facts of modern life. Firstly, the best protection against the proliferation of divorce is sound and intensive preparation for marriage. Education remains the best tool for defence against all ills of society, from marriage breakdowns to smoking, from drug abuse to unemployment. Secondly, the Church has to acknowledge that in spite of all good intentions in the world marriages do breakdown and the Church’s strict narrow annulment policy will invariably force a progressively larger segment of its faithful to stop living their religion.

Sooner or later the Church will have to adopt a more practical and liberal annulment policy. Is it outrageous to argue that from a religious viewpoint a marriage can only be valid if cemented by love in front of God? So if along the way love disappears, which leads one to doubt if it were there in the first place (truth never dies, you remember!), was the original marriage validly executed when one of its key components was or goes missing?


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Trichets Legacy

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Awesome events are happening around us: acts of God as much as acts of man.

This last year we have seen natural disasters we don’t normally see in a decade. Major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand (twice), and Japan (twice and counting), a devastating tsunami in Japan causing the breakdown of a nuclear power station complex that is malfunction and threatening large scale contamination, a freezing winter in the northern hemisphere which left many countries snow-bound for days, floods in Eastern Australia and bush fires on the western side, mud slides in Brazil were among the main natural disasters.

Acts of man have been equally breathtaking since a vegetable hawker set himself on fire in southern Tunisia on 17 December last year in protest against the heavy hand of the state when dealing with the powerless individual trying to earn a decent living for his family. The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt delivered the beacon to protesters for democracy within a relatively short time and with relatively little cost in terms of human life, as the military in both cases defended the people rather than the autocrat.

Inspired by this success, other countries with a superficial or non-existent democracy assumed that the momentum of the Arab spring could wipe out their own autocratic structures with the same relative ease as in Tunisia and Egypt.

That was a wrong assumption. In Libya, the army, for reasons it know best, largely remained loyal to the incumbent rulers and landed the country in a civil war with the eastern part controlled by the pro-democracy rebels and the western part in the hands of the incumbent regime. UN sanctioned military intervention, effective in reversing the regime military machine, which was clearly both capable and intended to slaughter the rebels in the east, has largely resulted in a stalemate with the battle front moving a few kilometres backward and forward with monotonous regularity.

Other uprisings in the Middle East and the Gulf are proving much more muted and there seems little appetite by the international community to support any movement that upsets the status quo. Firstly, there is a digestion problem. The powers that be can’t handle so many burning issues simultaneously. Secondly, the Gulf and the Middle East are not North Africa. North Africa is not a major oil exporter, whereas if there should be a disruption of oil exports from the Gulf, the price of oil would explode through a supply shock and western economies would be thrown back into a deep recession while still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008. Thirdly, the five countries that form North Africa are not closely clustered like in the Middle East and the Gulf.

So the revolution in North Africa could happen in series. In the Middle East and the Gulf any instability could spread like wild fire involving religious wars and friends like Israel as much as foes like Iran.

A third dimension of the awesome events that unfolded during the past 12 months is the grave financial difficulties being encountered by sovereign states in the euro area. Unable to regain competitiveness through the devaluation route, which is no longer available in a monetary union, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, would have defaulted on their debts without the support of other EU countries who put together emergency funding to replace the funding that was being denied them by normal capital markets.

These events have exposed a grave malaise of delusional denial among many international leaders, be they political, financial or business. Political incumbents active on one side of an internal civil war convince themselves that they are still loved by their people, whom they perceive as eternally grateful for past achievements. In their eyes, the rebels, rather than democratic elements seeking freedom from long-term political oppression, are mere disgraceful traitors in the service of foreign forces.

Peripheral euro area countries like Greece and Portugal have lost competitiveness because their political leaders used their experience within the euro merely to lower their borrowing costs so that they could persist in their old overspending habits. Now that markets are pricing their borrowing requirements on their fundamentals rather than their euro linkages, they can only regain competitiveness through overdue, persistent and painful restructuring.

This is only possible through substantial economic growth, which in turn depends on recovery of competitiveness. It seems like a circular problem to me, which in the end has to be broken by what will hopefully be an orderly debt restructuring that will lighten the debt load through market measures rather than a dirty default. Yet these euro area peripheral leaders continue to pretend or delude themselves that they can service the mountain of debt they wastefully created in the first place. Perhaps they need reminding what James Carville, once political guru to President Clinton and until recently CNN contributor, had said about the feebleness of extravagant borrowers facing the bond market: “I used to think that if there was reincarnation I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

Two people have kept their cool during the awesomely difficult times we have experienced since the financial crisis of 2008. They are the two main central bankers on both sides of the Atlantic, Bernanke in the US and Trichet in the euro area. Both men have filled the gaps that politicians could just not move fast enough to address. Were it not for their ingenious and timely intervention, we would have had a massive financial disaster of Great Depression proportions.

Trichet is probably edging out as the overall winner supporting euro area banks with massive liquidity backing, as the troubles of their sovereigns affect negatively banks’ normal access to the markets. He even engineered temporary support for sovereign bonds to keep yields within acceptable boundaries until the politicians build permanent structures more appropriate for such role. Doing this against the opposition of the German boy on the Board and at the same time being courageous enough to start raising interest rates when other central banks would not even dare think about it, shows Trichet’s mettle in protecting the credibility of the ECB to underpin the continued mooring of inflation expectations at low levels.

When Trichet leaves next October he will be a hard act to follow. No one around has the status to fill the void left by politicians and at the same time not just keep his independence from them but even use domestic banks’ dependence on ECB support to force the hand of politicians to do what needs to be done no matter how politically unpalatable it could be. Trichet leaves a legacy that should make him an ideal candidate for Commission Presidency when Barroso’s term is up.

No one has his ability and personality to knock heads of EU national leaders to secure timely, pre-emptive and effective compromises without getting to the very brink of the crisis.