Abdu’l-Baha speaking of Jesus Christ in 1912


I’m too late to share this for the Easter holiday, but I figured it was still worth it. I came across this beautiful passage recently reading the book The Promulgation of Universal Peace, a collection of talks given by Abdu’l-Baha a little more than a century ago.

During Abdu’l-Baha’s journey through Europe and North America in the early 20th century, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ were a common topic. That may seem strange given that the whole point of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip was to introduce Westerners to a new faith and a new spiritual message. But seen in the context of the Baha’i Faith’s core teaching — that all religions are in fact reflections of a single spiritual truth, and all human beings are members of a single family — the fact that Abdu’l-Baha tended to talk in terms familiar to a Western audience makes a great deal of sense.

In any case, here is Abdu’l-Baha speaking to a small group of listeners in Brooklyn in 1912. (With some abridging by me*.)

The divine Prophets came to establish the unity of the Kingdom in human hearts. All of them proclaimed the glad tidings of the divine bestowals to the world of mankind. All brought the same message of divine love to the world. Jesus Christ gave His life upon the cross for the unity of mankind. Those who believed in Him likewise sacrificed life, honor, possessions, family, everything, that this human world might be released from the hell of discord, enmity and strife. His foundation was the oneness of humanity. Only a few were attracted to Him. They were not the kings and rulers of His time. They were not rich and important people… But their hearts were pure and attracted by the fires of the Divine Spirit manifested in Christ. With this small army Christ conquered the world of the East and the West. Kings and nations rose against Him. Philosophers and the greatest men of learning assailed and blasphemed His Cause. All were defeated and overcome, their tongues silenced, their lamps extinguished, their hatred quenched; no trace of them now remains. They have become as nonexistent, while His Kingdom is triumphant and eternal.

The brilliant star of His Cause has ascended to the zenith, while night has enveloped and eclipsed His enemies. His name, beloved and adored by a few disciples, now commands the reverence of kings and nations of the world. His power is eternal; His sovereignty will continue forever, while those who opposed Him are sleeping in the dust, their very names unknown, forgotten. The little army of disciples has become a mighty cohort of millions. The Heavenly Host, the Supreme Concourse are His legions; the Word of God is His sword; the power of God is His victory.

Jesus Christ knew this would come to pass and was content to suffer. His abasement was His glorification; His crown of thorns, a heavenly diadem. When they pressed it upon His blessed head and spat in His beautiful face, they laid the foundation of His everlasting Kingdom. He still reigns, while they and their names have become lost and unknown. He is eternal and glorious; they are nonexistent. They sought to destroy Him, but they destroyed themselves and increased the intensity of His flame by the winds of their opposition.

Through His death and teachings we have entered into His Kingdom. His essential teaching was the unity of mankind and the attainment of supreme human virtues through love. He came to establish the Kingdom of peace and everlasting life. Can you find in His words any justification for discord and enmity? The purpose of His life and the glory of His death were to set mankind free from the sins of strife, war and bloodshed…

…To be a real Christian is to be a servant in His Cause and Kingdom, to go forth under His banner of peace and love toward all mankind, to be self-sacrificing and obedient, to become quickened by the breaths of the Holy Spirit, to be mirrors reflecting the radiance of the divinity of Christ, to be fruitful trees in the garden of His planting, to refresh the world by the water of life of His teachings—in all things to be like Him and filled with the spirit of His love.

————

*For the full passage, see here.

Note: In the process of writing this I learned that this particular speech was given the day after Abdu’l-Baha arrived by boat to America from Europe. A historical chronicle of this particular day in his journey is here.

This is what depression era politics looks like


As I’ve mentioned before, for the past several years I’ve been working as a sell-side macro strategist in the banking world. All this means is that I help clients of the bank I work for to better understand the financial markets and make good investment decisions.

Oftentimes the most stimulating aspect of the job entails having broad conversations with clients about the global economy, given that what happens on that level weighs so heavily on the price of pretty much every financial asset. Right now there is a clear sense of pessimistic resignation among most of the clients I speak to, as more and more of the investment community comes to grips with the frustrating reality of the post-crisis economy. Europe and Japan appear to be dealing with a perennial threat of deflation. China is, at best, gradually slowing from its previously unsustainable pace of growth. Even the US, a relative shining light among developed country economies in recent years, is struggling with stagnating wages, especially for the poor and the middle class. Though few think to use the term, I personally think the period we’re in now may be classified by future economic historians as a global depression, one milder than what we experienced in the 1930s, but with the same features of sluggish demand and weak growth and inflation for years on end.

Lately these conversations have steered towards the question: How do we get ourselves out of this mess? There are no easy answers. That’s mostly because, like many things in life, the technical solutions are relatively straight forward, but the social and political backdrop makes those solutions essentially impossible.

To take an example, since the crisis in 2008, central banks have pulled out all the stops in an effort to boost growth and prevent inflation from turning negative. The first step was to cut their key interest rates in an effort to encourage investment and spending. But eventually many central banks hit zero or close to it, and the conventional wisdom was that banks’ target interest rates couldn’t go negative. So a number of central banks tried pulling other levers, given that cutting rates alone wasn’t doing the job, only to find that even this mix of policies wasn’t enough. Now policy makers are debating whether or not to cut interest rates deep into negative territory, an uncharted policy territory which may finally ward off deflation and kickstart the economy, but may also risk destabilizing banks and making the whole problem worse.

You get the point. There is a sense of desperation on the part of many of the officials around the globe in charge of monetary policy. Their bullets have essentially been fired, their caches emptied. And now they are scrambling for whatever other flotsam and jetsam they can throw at the problem.

So what is the solution when the usefulness of monetary policy is all but exhausted? For most of the clients I speak to (and I would agree), it’s fiscal expansion. As the argument goes, if loose money policies aren’t enough to get demand going, then maybe some combination of cutting taxes and increasing government spending should be next. Most economists see this as reasonable; these policies would increase debt levels, but then again, so would lackluster growth in a scenario in which we tried nothing. And besides, rather than expressing concern about too much debt, markets these days are practically begging governments to borrow and spend more; at the time of writing, Japan — a country with a debt level double its GDP — can borrow at negative interest rates going out ten years.

Here is the point: Politics makes a badly-needed policy intervention such as this one essentially impossible. As economic outcomes stagnate — unemployment remains high, real wages fall, etc. — democracies don’t tend to sway towards loosening the fiscal reins. Canada under its new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is a notable exception to this. But it is very much an exception. In Europe, the UK, and the US, major political movements have emerged urging governments to tighten their belts, rather than let loose. You can blame part of this phenomenon on the preferences of very wealthy individuals with disproportionate political power, who might push policy away from anything that risks expanding the size of the state or making the tax code more progressive. But I’m convinced this isn’t the whole story. The concepts of belt-tightening and “making due in tough times” are easily understood by the typical democratic voter; the concept of a fiscal multiplier for economic output is not. So when economies face those tough times, politicians can signal their credibility, trustworthiness, and discipline by extolling the virtues of fiscal modesty and “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps”. That such austerity actually drives an ailing economy further into the abyss is seen only as a minor nuisance along the road to political victory.

As if this reality — that politics seems intrinsically biased towards pulling back on the fiscal  reins at exactly the wrong moment — wasn’t depressing enough, the case of migration gives us another example. As I discussed in a recent post, all developed economies need some influx of workers, including the unskilled. The cases of Europe and Japan are especially dire; as the working age population shrinks in these places, generating demand and fighting deflation become considerably more difficult. Yet, the common response within democratic societies during bad times is to restrict the inflow of workers rather than expanding it, as we commonly rush to point the finger at immigrants and other foreign governments for our economic problems. Europe is nearly fracturing over this issue as swaths of Syrian and other refugees flood into the continent. Despite the continent’s desperate need for more young workers, it is abundantly clear how the European electorate feels about immigration. From the UK’s flirtation with exiting the European Union, to Germany’s recent regional election results, to the multitude of countries within the EU openly challenging its principle of free movement, the writing is on the wall. Here in the US the situation is somewhat similar, even as our population issues are less dire. It’s not a coincidence that both major American parties now feel more emboldened to rail against globalization and free trade, and that one particular party’s front runner has made building walls between us and them — in quite literal terms — the flagship idea of his campaign.*

Things are getting particularly scary, I think, because people are slowly coming around to the reality that democracy lacks built-in mechanisms to deal with these phenomena. A lot of investors had this feeling, as did I, in mid-2011 when a handful of US politicians nearly crashed the world economy by refusing to allow a rise in the nation’s technical debt ceiling. This near-catastrophe was brought together by a match made in hell: voters who didn’t understand the debt ceiling concept, wrongfully assuming it to be associated with government profligacy using the simple logic of “more debt equals bad”; and politicians eager to capitalize on this misunderstanding, willing to vote for economic calamity in an effort to ingratiate them to their constituents. The crisis was averted at the last minute, but the episode sent a chilling message: There truly are no adults in charge.

Our current economic challenges are creating a similar dynamic, but one that is much more permanent in nature. After a generation of stagnant wages and nearly a decade of post-crisis economic malaise, voters are understandably mad as hell, with that anger now able to be sharpened into a devastating weapon in an era of instant communication and ubiquitous social media. In previous eras, perhaps, business elites and captains of industry might have been able to rein in this type of destructive populism. That effort is very much in full force this time around, in both the US and Europe, but this time voters don’t seem so easily pacified. How could they, after so many years of failed economic promises that seemed only to line the pockets and strengthen the influence of the wealthy and powerful? To suggest that elites must now wrest democratic control from the angry mobs now seems laughably naïve at best, and suspiciously nefarious at worst.

Now more than ever, the combination of dishonest, opportunistic politicians; poorly-educated, apathetic, and easily distracted voters; and a feckless, click-baiting press threatens to render democracies powerless to solve their most urgent problems, and the issue of the economy is now serving as a perfect illustration. There is no Superman swooping in to deliver us to safety, no handsome and charismatic politician who promises to make it better, if only we might give him our vote. The solution will take something deeper, a personal and moral accounting on the part of every citizen, as we decide what kind of voters we want to be, what kind of elected officials we deserve, and what kind of journalists we entrust with the truth. That is, it requires an honest look in the mirror on the part of all of us about the ruptures in the democratic fabric and the personal efforts we must all make to repair them. Otherwise, years from now we may look back at this moment as the good times, when the cynical spiral of economics and politics was just getting underway.

——–

*Turning more protectionist towards trade or restricting immigration isn’t necessarily a cyclical economic issue the way fiscal policy is. The point is that to avoid long-term stagnation related to an aging population and a shrinking workforce, Europe and Japan need more young people coming from foreign countries, not fewer.

Marriage, inequality, and the social partitioning of America

couple_pouring_champagne

At my first job out of college, one of my coworkers told an unforgettable anecdote about a research project he once worked on as a student. At the time he was helping an economist study marriage patterns across the US, and they needed to understand how marriage laws differed by state. So my coworker went to the library, approached the librarian, and had the following exchange:

Research assistant: “Hi. I need to find out the minimum legal age of marriage in each US state. Can you help me?”

Librarian: [Long pause, stares back suspiciously.] “She’s too young for you.”

I bring this up because a) I find this story hilarious, and b) it illustrates that economists have long been curious about how marriage patterns impact economic outcomes. A NY Times blog post from a while back summarized some of the recent research on this, specifically with a focus on income inequality. The way we commonly choose a marriage partner, it turns out, could be playing a significant role in America’s growing income divide.

From the article:

These days, an investment banker may marry another investment banker rather than a high school sweetheart, or a lawyer will marry another lawyer, or a prestigious client, rather than a secretary. Whether measured in terms of income or education, there are more so-called power couples today than in the past, one manifestation of a phenomenon known as assortative mating, or more generally the pairing of like with like…

Money and talent become clustered in high-powered, two-earner families determined to do everything possible to advance the interests of their children…

The numbers show that assortative mating really matters. One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

This was a shock to me when I read it. Income inequality in the United States is at its worst in nearly a century. Most people seem aware of this, but how we get married is rarely one of the reasons cited for the trend. Instead, it’s the usual mix of globalization, technology, and union decline that most use to explain the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. On occasion, smart economists highlight deliberate government actions over the past few decades, like cutting taxes on investment income or relaxing bank regulations, for the explosion of incomes at the top. But social dynamics aren’t usually part of the discussion.

Nonetheless, the finding that marriage can have such significant implications for inequality makes a great deal of sense to me personally. Back when my wife and I were new parents living in a mostly middle class Connecticut city, we had many late night, anxious conversations about the mediocre schools in our town on the one hand and the area’s stratospheric cost of private education on the other. Southern Connecticut, it turns out, is like a souped-up microcosm of America in that regard; public institutions are under fiscal pressure just like everywhere else, relegating the kids of blue collar native-born Americans and first generation immigrants to middling schools, while the area’s bankers, executives and hedge fund managers drive up the cost of living, from houses to school tuition to haircuts. As kids clump together in socially and economically-segregated schools, they’re more likely to interact with and marry those just as privileged as they are, deepening the inequality gap over generations.

What’s the solution to this vicious cycle? First, public policy can make a huge difference by improving the quality of public schools, such that rich, talented parents actually want to send their kids there, and that those kids might mix socially with their less privileged peers. As I understand it, this was a key ingredient in the post-WWII economy, one characterized by stable growth and low inequality; good public education during that time not only produced talent and raised the economy’s productivity, but it also helped maintain a flat society.

But as in many cases, public policy can’t do the job on its own. Solving a social problem as weighty and challenging as this one requires individuals and families to change how they live and interact with others. As I wrote recently on the subject of race, it’s not good enough to have character and integrity in a vacuum. If you want the issue of racism in America to improve, we will have to seek out friends, coworkers, and family members of different races, and consciously include them in our personal lives.

So it is when it comes to class and social status. Given that these days we so commonly live in sequestered little communities where our neighbors have similar incomes and similar education levels, if we actually care about the societal implications of runaway social and economic segregation in America, we can’t just sit there and wait for a solution to descend from heaven. To get out of our comfort zones and to “forcibly agitate” our lives, in the language of that aforementioned blog post, might be the only way to break the cycle.

This takes a radical change in how we live, but on an even more basic level, a major shift in how we view other human beings. Abdul-Baha, for one, asks no less of us than this:

See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people… they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such.

That’s not easy, of course. But what’s the alternative? The problem of growing inequality and the deepening stratification of society won’t fix itself. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t be absolved of responsibility. Then again, neither can we.

In search of the new mythology


I recently started reading a book of transcribed interviews with Joseph Campbell, the famous philosopher and mythologist. I found some of his ideas so fascinating — and in some cases so in tune with how Baha’is think about religious truth — that I felt the need to write a blog post just to share them here. I hope those reading this find Campbell’s words as interesting as I do.  Continue reading

Personal reflections on getting fat as a dad

dad_and_son_on_beach

After my wife and I had our first kid a few years ago, I joked that becoming a father was a great way to get out of shape. There are two main reasons for this: 1) most of your free time is gone, so it’s much harder to get to the gym or wherever else you normally get exercise; and 2) you’re getting a lot less sleep at night, which means that you’re more likely to eat like a pig during the day.

I’m not exactly tipping the scales these days, but as I get deeper and deeper into my 30s, staying in shape is becoming noticeably harder. In terms of diet, I probably eat better now than I ever have. I’m far from perfect, but I’m down to about one sugary drink per week, I hardly ever have anything with white flour, and I try not to snack after dinner. And yet, the dress pants that I had the dry cleaner take out for me just a few months ago are once again feeling snug around the waist.

Of course, there’s another reason besides less exercise and less sleep that explains why men struggle to stay in shape as they get older: declining testosterone. Continue reading

The top five Fruit Tree Blog posts of 2015

Thank you to all the readers and supporters of Fruit Tree Blog as we close out another year.

In case you missed them (or just feel like reading them again), here are the top five blog posts of 2015:

1) The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis 

Aging and shrinking populations in much of the developed world have a simple solution: young, able-bodied workers from developing countries.

2) This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

Recognizing the importance of trust and honesty in keeping the wheels of our economy churning.

3) Let the mystery be

A Leftovers junkie learns to accept mystery when it comes to life’s great questions.

4) America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

What we can do as individuals to help heal the disease of racism.

5) Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer

Celebrating the young Baha’i musician’s success in an era of artistic cynicism.

Here’s to 2016. Much love and Happy New Year to all.

-“Ed”

Seriously? Yes, of course Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.

I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. Continue reading

Defeating racism can not be accomplished from behind a computer screen

friends_talking

When I was in 7th grade, my classmate’s father died of cancer. He took some time away from school, and during that time, my mother encouraged me to express my condolences to him when he got back. Being naive and stubborn, I resisted. “I’ll be reminding him of the fact his dad died, and just make him feel worse,” I argued. My mother responded that I didn’t understand, and that people appreciate these gestures, however simple, when they experience loss. And besides, she told me, it was my duty to acknowledge it. To pretend that nothing had happened would be much worse.

My friend eventually came back to school. In the days following, he tended to sit near the back of the classroom. He was more subdued and quiet than before, and rarely talked in class. I never expressed my condolences, or even acknowledged that he’d lost his dad. It’s hard to remember why, but I think I was scared of how he’d feel and how he’d receive the gesture. Maybe I was scared I’d say the wrong thing, say something stupid.

I was reminded of this episode a couple years ago after a string of highly-publicized instances of violence against black people in America. It had been a depressing series of events, culminating with Eric Garner’s now famous “I can’t breathe” chokehold-induced heart attack at the hands of the NYPD. The nation, it seemed, had reached a racial boiling point, a fragile equilibrium where smoldering suspicion and anger could explode in unpredictable directions.

In many ways, these events felt to me like a friend’s relative had died. I myself was saddened and afraid; how much worse must the feeling be, I wondered, for my black friends and colleagues experiencing these spectacles in a much more personal way? I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did as a kid, to continue on and ignore it, to pretend that nothing had changed. Somehow, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I wanted to express my condolences.

Continue reading

Let the mystery be

hubble-new-monkey-head-nebula-1600My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.

This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading