It’s another holiday ritual week (doesn’t it seem like yesterday that we were in the midst of holiday jolly with Christmas and New Years?). It is Holy Week for Christians and Passover for the Jews. Sunday, the 5th is Easter and Friday (today), the 3rd is the first day of Passover (which lasts until the 11th). It also happens that the daughter’s high school had spring break this week. So this is a week redounding with religious and pagan ritual and mythologies.
According to the Christian catechism, last Sunday, Christ entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey; the crowds lined the streets, waving palm fronds to show their love and appreciation for him. The Christians celebrate the day as Palm Sunday. As Christ was neither a Pharisee nor a Sadducee (the rabbis and keepers of the Jewish law) and taught an alternative way than the legalism of the elders, this adulation was most upsetting. By Maundy Thursday (meaning the day of commandment, which refers to the command that Christ issued to the disciples at the Last Supper to love one another), Christ knew the gig was up. The Pharisees and Sadducees turned the people against him. According to the gospels, Christ repeatedly predicted he would die and then rise from the dead. The next day, Good Friday, it finally came to pass that he was crucified and died. On Sunday, he was resurrected from the dead.
The day wasn’t always known as “Good” Friday. Until the Middle Ages, it was known as Black Friday, because it was the day that Christ died, and Fridays were anyways considered particularly unlucky. And, of course, no one really knows what day of the week Christ was crucified, but for him to rise from the dead on the third day (Sunday), he had to die on Friday, if Friday is counted as one of the days. And the Christians desperately wanted Christ to rise on Sunday, instead of his resurrection happening on, for example, Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath. Christ was a Jew, but the early Christian church preferred to downplay that aspect of his heritage in order to broaden his appeal, sort of like Barack Obama is fully half-white, but only when it garners more votes to acknowledge as much.
Tonight is the first night of Passover for the Jews, when the first, and perhaps only (depending on which sect of Judaism) Passover Seder is held. The Seder, meaning literally “order or arrangement” is a ritual retelling of the Exodus story that God commanded of the Hebrews after having forced the Pharaoh to release them from captivity. The name, Passover refers to an episode reeked in blood, when the Lord passed over Hebrew households if they had the blood of a yearling lamb smeared over the sides and top of their doorframe, on his way to killing the first-born child and animal of every Egyptian household. We would today consider this genocide.
Passover lasts until April 11th this year. The first two days—from sundown today until sundown two days hence, are, for observant Jews, full-fledged non-working days. So the timing of the holiday this year is fortuitous, as it starts on a weekend, and one in which not much work happens anyway. For seven days, Jews are to eat only unleavened bread with their meals, thus Passover can also be called, as it is in the Bible, The Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The first day of Passover doesn’t always coincide with Good Friday, and the period of celebration doesn’t not always (at least partially) coincide with the Christian Holy Week culminating in Easter Sunday. It just happens that it does this year. But it is not happenstance that the two Judeo-Christian holidays take place at roughly the same time of year. They come at if from different calendars, but for the Christians anyway, arrive at about the same place purposely. The Christians wanted to distinguish their theology from the Jews (and Pagans), but make it enough of the same that it would be attractive for individuals of either group to join as followers and believers. The same could be said of Christmas, at least with regard to the Pagan holidays around the winter solstice.
Spring break, that most Pagan of education-calendar rituals, coincides, like Easter and Passover, with the beginnings of spring and the rebirth of the world under a warming sun. It’s fitting that all the holidays overlap this year. They all are derived from the same place in the temperate-climate mammalian heart that rejoices at the warmth and reawakening that comes with the lengthening days and more direct sunlight of spring. But on the education calendar spring break originally had as its justification the need for children to help out on the farm to get the fields ready for planting. Very obviously, that is a quaint bygone. In these easy, post-modern times, it celebration now recalls the Roman Bacchic festival of boisterous and riotous revelry and drunkenness. Towns along Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast have come to loathe as much as love the Bacchanalian spring break rituals. They sell their souls for the money, and raucousness spring breakers bring.
In economic news, the big number out today—the March payroll report—was a disappointment. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Nonfarm payroll employment increased by 126,000 in March,
and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.5 percent.
Employment continued to trend up in professional and business
services, health care, and retail trade. Job losses continued in
Incorporating the revisions for January and February, which
reduced nonfarm employment by 69,000, monthly job gains have
averaged 197,000 over the past 3 months. In the 12 months prior
to March, employment growth averaged 269,000 per month.
This continues a downward trend that began after the blowout numbers of November of last year, when payrolls grew at a monthly pace of over 400,000.
Here’s what I said about the developing trend in February:
The 257,000 number [in January] is a decline from November and December’s numbers, which were 423,000 and 329,000, respectively, after revisions. Though it would never be spun in such a manner on the long-only news outlets (Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, i.e., basically any mainstream business media), the numbers point to a declining level of gains. From November’s 423,000 to December’s 329,000 is a drop of 94,000, or about a 22% reduction in monthly gains. From December’s 329,000 to January’s 257,000 is a drop of 72,000, also a 22% reduction in additional jobs. If the trend of dropping about 22% each month continues, the gains to employment in February will barely tip 200,000, which is a perfectly meaningless observation to make, except that it does a fine job of helping flip the idea that January’s numbers were great on its ear. Employment gains will turn negative by the end of the year if current trends continue.
In February the trend reversed (temporarily?), and payroll gains increased from January’s 257,000 to 295,000. With the numbers declining to only 126,000 last month, the downward trend has returned and accelerated, dropping 57% in a month. From the details of the report, most of the declining growth can be attributed to the mining industry (oil and gas extraction and services pertaining thereto), which lost jobs again this month. Most other industries saw declining growth, but none actually lost jobs.
What does all this mean? It could be that the cyclical stage of this expansion peaked around the end of 2014. Quite a few other economic metrics are coming in weak, including last month’s automobile industry sales volumes (a big economic bellweather), which had been on a tear. It could be that this is just a hiccup. Or, it could be the start of something more ominous. No one would have predicted in 2007 that a few defaults in subprime residential real estate mortgages would kick off an economic and financial conflagration for the ages. Time will tell.
The only other newsworthy event of this week is the putative nuclear arms deal the US has struck with Iran. The US is gravely concerned that Iran might get the bomb because Iran would surely commence to dropping bombs on US cities just for the hell of it if they were so endowed. It’s not really clear whether Iran wants the bomb, or just wants to negotiate concessions for agreeing not to build one. Iran is rapidly expanding, with the US’s help, its imperial reach in the Middle East. It can now add Iraq and Syria to areas under its hegemonic purview, and the US is helping it defeat ISIS in the Levant, which will expand its influence even further. In Yemen, it has so rattled Saudi Arabia by its support of the Houthi rebels who recently overthrew the Yemen government that the Saudi’s commenced bombing Yemen, but with plain old conventional bombs.
The first thing to know about the Iran nuclear deal is that it is tentative. It is to be drafted in writing and signed by June 30th, which is an eternity of time when it comes to international relations. Under the agreement, Iran is to give up 2/3rd’s of the weapons-grade uranium it now has, and convert a heavy water reactor so that it is incapable of making plutonium, and submit to inspections of some sort for fifteen years. It would take an expert in nuclear technology who was also expert in international relations to know whether the agreement will actually work to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In return for agreeing to the deal, the US and other world powers agreed to lift economic sanctions, allowing Iran to again sell oil directly on the world markets, which ought to help those US employment numbers even more. What’s not to love about more oil for an already glutted market?
Nobody likes this deal, except President Obama, who championed its negotiation. He apparently sees it as a potential legacy maker for him. But a nuclear-armed Iran is really not any more dangerous to American interests than is a non-nuclear Iran. And, ironically, with US help, plain old conventional-bomb Iran has expanded is sphere of influence dramatically since Obama came to office. It may be up to Hillary to beat back the Persian hordes.
The party that most loathes this deal is, surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. But the US does not exist to do Israel’s defensive bidding. Israel is not the 51st US state. Israel is an independent sovereign that is ever and always out for what every other independent sovereign is out for—its own interests. An Iran that retains enough bomb-making material to cobble one together in a year, as this deal provides, is no nuclear threat to the US at all. And not legitimately much of one to Israel, either, but the Israelis have grown to believe that they among all the peoples and nations of the world deserve to be allowed to proactively eliminate any and every possible threat they face. Israel has the bomb, but no one hears Lebanon caterwauling about its compromised security as a result.
Regardless of what else happens between the US and Iran and the whole Middle East situation, I sense that the US is heading to war, ultimately with Iran. I hear it from the right and the left, both of which worship heroes that we created in Iraq for no other real purpose than we needed heroes to validate our collective spirit. The US really gets confused about its reason for being without which it is embroiled in some conflict abroad, whereby it is inevitably “defending freedom”, or is engaged in some rights expanding exercise at home (gay marriage, e.g.). The US depends on some notion of progress continually progressing, else the whole thing collapses in on itself. That’s what really makes it “exceptional”, as the neocons like to say. Most other nations are content to just survive and thrive. Not so, the US. It must survive, thrive and conquer. So it relentlessly searches for things to conquer, as surviving and thriving have proved fairly easy.
In the meantime, Happy Easter, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread or Spring Break, depending on your religious and secular affiliations!