Friday, January 24, 2014

"Leadership" Is The Answer To Everything (or maybe not)

The Atlantic posted an interesting piece about the obsessive focus on "Leadership" at colleges and universities. As a talisman, a holy grail, the one true quality sought in all applicants and sold in brochures and seminars.

My feeling about this? (Thanks for asking.)

I think colleges' obsession with "leadership" has a lot to do with the class of people colleges cultivate for cash donations. At some point the accumulated advantages enjoyed by fewer and fewer people shift respect into reverence and then worship.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How Corporations Became People (Or Did They?)

A brief clear video summary first.

What’s interesting is that the crucial decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific never stated that the corporation was a person entitled to rights of personhood.

How it became the invalid cornerstone for every corporate personhood claim since is a mystery. Either the judge erred and prejudged the case or the clerk assigned to summarize the decision invented corporate personhood. Was he in the employ of the railroad? This excellent article about the case sorts out the case and finds nothing written in the decision supporting corporate personhood, an issue that wasn’t even properly argued. Was this creation of corporate “persons” done out of bias or error or conflict of interest?

The point is all the subsequent law saying that corporations are persons is based upon a fiction. And corporations have become "super persons" as a result, with rights larger than other citizens. Despite the fact they cannot be jailed, cannot be poisoned by their malfeasance or that of other corporate “persons”, cannot be killed except by their own hand, and are granted extraordinary methods of evading the obligations and hazards that living, breathing persons cannot evade. Today they represent a special class of protected super persons, more powerful than the rest of us and held to fewer obligations. A class virtually above the law. A class, as we see in the case of their proxies in the lobbying group ALEC, that writes the laws the rest of us must live under.

And the point is it was never made law by the Constitution or by Congress or by the courts. Is it possible to undo something that was never done in the first place?

One thing we can do is amend the Constitution. Join the movement. Join and right this wrong.

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Friday, January 03, 2014

Rich Vs. Poor

Keep the poor busy trying to stay alive and they don’t have time to keep you from robbing them.

Here's an interesting NPR story about this syndrome. It's real and has become the dominant living model in the U.S. Poverty makes us easier to impoverish.

This is why people who need help to stay alive are asked to jump through hoops and pee into cups. Workers who see the many who are worse off are far too busy keeping their bosses happy to consider asking for more. It’s too risky and who has the time?

And what do the rich get out of it? Unhappiness they can’t buy a cure for. Scientists have been studying this. All these unhappy rich folks have is the satisfaction of knowing they’ve made thousands or millions of others more miserable than they are.

Silly, isn’t it? It’s worrisome that the most powerful individuals in our society are irrational. Perhaps insane. Maybe even dangerous.

There is a rhetorical device called reductio ad absurdum. Taking the idea to its absurd limits. Just for the sake of argument. Or for shutting argument off.

One person making more in five minutes than his average worker makes in a year? That is absurd, but it’s become commonplace. And it isn’t enough for the person who’s making more in a day than his secretary will earn in a lifetime. He wants more. He earns a decent annual income on one visit to the bathroom. His workers have to punch out to use the bathroom. His retirement package will probably include free dry cleaning for life and lifetime use of an office boy for whatever he likes office boys to be used for. Firewood perhaps.

When money or power or validity is reduced to absurd levels in the large masses of people and increased to absurd levels in a handful of lucky ones at the top, absurd things happen. Things are bad now, but they could get worse. Most of us are worthless, in the current valuation, and a few people who own sweatshop factories and are able to get the taxpayer to feed their workers for them are gods. Absurd.

Then anything becomes possible. When your lords and masters can do what they wish with you, you need to worry about what they are wishing for. Especially because power and wealth makes people insane. Consider what people tell us about the supreme ruler of North Korea. This story may not be true, but, as the Daily Telegraph says, impossible things are happening all the time.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Where is Our Dickensian Sense of Outrage?

Some must reading:

A very interesting New Yorker piece about working in high end retail.

A Guardian commentary comparing the minimal abuse of the food stamp programs with the huge abuses on Wall Street.

And a piece from BusinessInsider about how the very rich blow through millions without thinking about it.

We have one family in this country that is richer than the whole bottom third of the population. That would be the Walton family, the owners of WalMart, the largest private employer in the country, perhaps in the world.

They instruct their employees to apply for public assistance and food stamps to survive because they refuse to pay them enough to live on.

I wonder how many millions they spend each year lobbying to cut food stamps and public assistance. It would be easy enough for a news organization to find out.

Every Christmas thousands of very comfortable Americans put on their best clothes and drive their expensive cars to the theatre to see the annual production of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol”, and they smile and shed a tear and applaud, and they learn nothing. They put on their best clothes and drive their expensive cars to their richly appointed churches on Christmas Eve and hear the familiar verses and sing the familiar hymns about Jesus, and they ignore His explicit instructions to care for the poor.

To a great extent this failure to hear the inconvenient reminder to help the poor just when you’ve bought yourself a very expensive Christmas present is understandable. We dislike feeling unworthy and greedy. So churches and theaters and news organizations which rely on the dollar support of the wealthy soft peddle the harsh reminders and focus on the cozier stories. They quote Thessalonians–––that the poor will always be with us, as if that lets anyone off the hook––– and ignore what Jesus actually said about the poor.

(Have you ever noticed how our news refuses to include stories about the unfairness of our economy? This story might explain it. And this one.)

And so the economy grows more top-heavy, and the public conversation is steered toward justifying that, as if it wasn’t only bad Christianity but very bad economics. The rich need justifications for their wealth, and they’re willing and able to spend billions to shore up their flimsy rationale. Those billions would do a lot more for them and the country if it were directed into decent pay for their employees. Their failure to do that makes them Scrooges, but I doubt any of them see the resemblance. Failure to pay fairly is also very very bad for business and for the health of our economy.

(There are some alarming measurements of the damage recent decades have done to most working people's lives...but you won't see these measurements on your nightly newscast. Probably because they need ad dollars from WalMart.)

Since Reagan reshaped America’s thinking, our economy has changed. By pretending union workers were greedy, Republicans destroyed the working middle class. By pretending welfare recipients were eating lobster and driving Cadillacs, they persuaded us to cut benefits to the poor and vulnerable.

At the same time this was happening, church membership in America changed too. Mainline denominations which preached the gospel, including the uncomfortable words Jesus had about our neglect of the poor and our personal greed, lost members to the new freelance megachurches with their aggressively pro-greed “gospel”, their prosperity gospel that twisted Jesus’s teachings into a justification for the wealth of their expensively dressed preachers. It’s disappointing how gullible Americans are.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Letter to a Radio Host on the topic of "The Lazy Poor"

Dear [ ],

I heard you on the air talking with Congressman [ ]. I live in his urban district, but I grew up in the suburbs. In fact I was a Republican until I was around thirty. My problem with what I heard you saying doesn't come from a doctrinaire lefty mindset. I got where I am after an embarrassing period when I learned how unsavory and selfish and extreme Republicanism and the comfortable suburban mindset were becoming. It isn't Eisenhower's party anymore.

I heard you referring to lazy people gaming the system to get federal handouts. And I'm pretty sure you weren't referring to ExxonMobil.

I cringe a little when I hear this old chestnut rolled out on local radio. Usually it's confined to the more right wing talk stations, where racism and hatred of the poor is expected.

I can't remember who said it in the Bible, but the quote often goes "The poor will always be with us." If it was Jesus saying this you can bet he wasn't implying that there was no point in bothering to help them out. Jesus (pardon me if you're not a Christian) was pretty clear that our treatment of the poor was the key to everything, that if we failed to help them we were not to expect salvation. But the most aggressively "Christian" among us these days sound the least like Christ in this respect.

Then I hear people like Paul Ryan, who grew up and prospered because he was an early beneficiary of the federal safety net, saying the safety net is becoming a hammock. I can think of no more colossal gall than this. If it is a hammock now it must have been a full service hotel when Paul Ryan was growing up with federal help.

There is a habit among media personalities like yourself to avoid being impolite, to avoid admitting that some of the people in elected office these days are heartless hypocrites. But they are. They are deeply unChristian while pretending to be superChristian. They run endless interference for the huge subsidies given to the enormously profitable corporate farmers and Wall Street banks and oil companies while working just as hard to gut programs intended to help the helpless. To avoid saying this you end up saying the opposite is true. Or you smudge the clear moral difference between the two parties.

Because radio people like yourself are so polite you go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid saying that one party is by and large responsible for this systematic heartlessness. Namely the Republicans. To the extent that Dems are cutting aid to the most vulnerable, they are only doing so to try to get within bargaining distance of their GOP counterparts. And the media's rule of false equivalency is what forces them to do this.

Lazy people on Welfare? Do you realize the hard work it takes to collect Welfare? The Scrooges among us (the same ones who want govt off people's backs) make darn sure that every recipient of government largesse (but only those with a net worth less than a million dollars) gets the stink eye, gets endless scrutiny and probing insulting questions, is made to jump through endless hoops and fill out endless forms, and wait in endless lines. Not only is it unkind but it is expensive and inefficient. Anything to avoid helping the less more is left to help the corporation that needs a freer ride.

Consider that there are some people WHO EMPLOYERS SIMPLY WILL NOT EMPLOY. Persons with limitations, with disabilities (physical and mental) that will not go away. Many of them veterans with the wounds earned in our service. Public works jobs programs might help some, but those are stubbornly opposed by Republicans. If some corporate CEO is going to give a million dollars to a congressman to cut unemployment or other benefits perhaps he should obligate himself to hire the people who are losing aid. It won't happen. These people will not be hired because some people are simply unsuited for work. The reasons are rarely laziness or criminality, but that is the reason radio people trot out to gratify their smug and comfortable listeners--whose own benefits are sacred. Of course, to some being poor is criminal enough.

So, please: stop resorting to the worst kind of class stereotypes. The hardest working people are the poor who have to cobble together several jobs to raise themselves up to the pathetic minimum. The laziest? Perhaps it's people Mitt Romney clubs with, who are rich from being rich. Who make money from the pot they were born with. In Romney's case we have learned how the companies he took over were made profitable at the expense of the people working in them. That is what arbitrage is. Buying a company with its own assets, most often by looting the pension fund of retired workers. Legally of course.

Stereotype? The predatory model of the extremely wealthy is more prevalent than the much remarked "lazy model" of the poor. Just as criminality and psychopathy and sociopathy and greed and corruption and ungenerosity is more typical of the very rich than the very poor. (Jesus was on to something.)

Even if it were rare for a billionaire to be rich by less than ethical means, one billionaire guilty of theft will end up with more than all the petty criminals combined, and he (as seen in the case of Jamie Dimon) will be the one who isn't required to do time. He will be the one who is allowed to deduct his government penalty from his taxes.

If you can get your head around this, perhaps a more enlightened and tolerant and generous point of view will creep into your conversations on air. Not insulting rich or poor, but showing a bit more tolerance toward the unlucky people who are down and a bit less latitude toward the lucky ones who already have all the advantages of money, access, power, influence and the paid up ownership of politicians on their side. Jesus was a stern critic of smugness. We should remind ourselves of that.


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Thursday, October 03, 2013

How Racist Is This Rabid Hatred Of Obama?

Is it all about race? Being so angry there's a black president that you'd just as soon shut the whole thing down?

Shucks, we're way yonder past racism in this here country, aren't we?

It's gotten worse in the past five years, but the recent mutation of race hatred goes back to Lee Atwater's Willie Horton dog whistle ad in 1988. (The Nation has some interesting recorded conversations in which Atwater lays it all out.)

It goes back to Nixon's infamous Southern Strategy to win the racist white southerners who abandoned the Democratic Party after the Civil Rights Amendment. The voters who'd gone for George Wallace twice. (The New York Times archive spells out the Southern Strategy in its wonderful cynical detail.)

But if anyone wants to discuss the unspoken racial content in Republican hatred for this president they are accused of "playing the race card." Because Southerners are much much too polite to ever ever get racial about anything. Never have, never will.

Slate ran a very good piece about this Southern complexion, pure white Southern, in the new Republican Party.

The dog whistle of racist politics has just added another veneer on top of the old Southern gentility, which was a mask to begin with. That mask came off whenever a neatly dressed black student tried to go to a white's only school, but otherwise was as sweet as molasses, as polite and inoffensive as a pure white woman at a cotillion.

Want to know the code words? The secret handshakes and secret signals? The New Statesman listed them in a recent story.

The South and the Republican Party it dominates have learned to change the tone of their message without changing the message. The dog whistle alerts the party faithful the way it alerts hound dogs, by going directly to the lizard part of the brain that responds reflexively to fear and loathing.

A good explanation for the five year long fever of race hatred that's causing this, from Joan Walsh at Salon. (She followed up with a piece describing the angry Republican responses she got.)

To explain why this is happening now, when we finally managed to elect and re-elect our first black president, we almost have to go back to the Civil War, which certain states never recognized they lost, and certainly never recognized they were wrong about.

So it is about race. Still. Stubbornly and ignorantly.

And the Republican Party would just as soon take the whole country down as give in. In their slow, patient way they are trying to take our country back to the old Southern ways. A small aristocracy and white trash and blacks with no rights. Low wages and a small comfortable elite. Bad roads, bad water, bad sanitation, worn out soil, poor education, poor public health. That is the ideal model. What are the standards in the Reddest of the Red Republican districts? They look like the South in the 19th Century. Mostly white, mostly rural, mostly poor. Mostly taking far more in federal aid than they pay in federal taxes. We are being led backward by a backward set of backwater politicians and their extremist (but dependent) voters.

For 148 years since 1865, white southerners have done everything they could to keep African Americans down. Prevented them from voting. Stolen their property. Lynched them. Rounded them up routinely to use as free labor. Prevented them from owning homes, getting educated, getting loans, being tried fairly or being able to press charges against a white person, prevented them from using a drinking fountain designed for white people, prevented them from using the same bathroom facilities. The list is endless and the nasty unChristian southern habit of racial hatred is unending. The aim is to humiliate and degrade the other race so they are lower than you are, which is pretty low considering the ugliness of the mindset.

This ugly and difficult and expensive experiment in social engineering has been paid for by a small set of white folks who'd rather not pay enough for their white social inferiors to live decently so instead of fair pay they promise the lower class whites to make sure the black population is inferior to their own unpleasant inferiority. And they deputize the white lowlifes to enforce this.

So it's no coincidence that they believe (and persist in saying despite evidence that any normal sane intelligent person would understand) that the first black president is A. Kenyan. B. Muslim C. a communist D. a Nazi E. part of a nefarious foreign plot F. the antichrist. Whatever he is, he's got to be illegitimate because of what they've been told all these years. There can't be a black president because they all know that any dumb poor white no account is always and in every way better than a black man. Because everybody has told southern whites that every white person is superior to every black person regardless of achievements or abilities or college degrees. What gave Obama that ticket to Harvard which was rightfully meant for some proper white person?

It's hard to channel this race-hating stupidity without becoming physically sick. And it makes a person mad to think racists and racist-abetters of this sort of stupidity are in control of a whole political party. That they have enough power to shut down our democracy. But I guess that makes it easier to understand how the bigots feel. Something is wrong. Sadly, the ones who are causing the problem are too dumb and hateful to understand what it is.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why are unions and workers the only ones ever labelled "militant"?

We were discussing a certain local union the other evening and the word "militant" was very quickly applied. I had a hard time visualizing these people with axe handles. Seriously. Elementary school teachers militant? I can't even imagine high school teachers raising their voices. Militant? It's ridiculous. Stubborn, maybe. Determined. Possibly strident, aggressive, assertive, even unreasonable. Militant? No. But the term is useful because it automatically stigmatizes the labor side of any disagreement.

Strange how the word militant is always applied to the labor side of the dispute and only to the labor side. Whether there is anything remotely violent or militaristic about the union behavior. But the label "militant" automatically alienates anyone reading about the dispute because it implies violence.

History paints a vivid picture of organized violence directed by employers against workers. It was the owners' side which sent in armed Pinkertons and the National Guard and armed street thugs in the early days, who infiltrated organizing efforts, fired, blackballed and otherwise intimidated workers trying to form unions, etc. In Colorado and Chicago and the Appalachian and western coal fields it was striking miners who were shot down and killed in the hundreds. But it's only workers who are labelled "militant". Hired armies, sometimes uniformed, sent to intimidate workers trying to organize were never called "militant". Why?

There is the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado where a tent city of coal workers and their families was attacked for 14 hours by hired police with bombs and machine guns. Militant?

There was the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937, when unarmed steelworkers and their families were gunned down by Chicago police after attending a rally on the south side. Militant?

The history of official police in this country begins with gangs of vigilantes sent out to discourage uprisings (the perpetual fear of the minority white population who lived off slave labor) and to hunt down fugitive slaves but also to intimidate the slave population who might just be thinking of escaping or might "need a little encouragement" to work harder. Sometimes it was simply sport.

The term "militant" stems from the word "militia" which was regularly applied to both ad hoc and official band or posses of armed uniformed men organized for the purpose of intimidating the low paid and unpaid and slave workers who always outnumbered their employers. But "militant" is never applied to the employer side in a labor dispute. Why?

Today, the most dangerous subversive organizations in America tend to be well-armed white right-wing groups who adopt the label of "militia" or "posse", but militant is seldom applied to the rightward side of the political spectrum, just as little attention and very little news coverage is directed there. Why?

To this day, "militant" is an adjective blithely, unquestioningly, automatically attached to nonmilitant and nonviolent workers. Workers who have the nerve to ask for more and seem determined to get it. Often they are receiving as little as their employer can get away with paying them, so this more they are asking for is ordinary fairness. And the determination they show towards gaining satisfaction is usually proportionate to the patience they've shown waiting to receive fairness. Fairness is seldom offered willingly, but that recalcitrance by management is never called militant. Why?

We've been reading about the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Which side is more "militant" here? Certainly the orchestra management is more militant than the violinists and cellists. A lockout is far more militant behavior than anything the players have demonstrated, but militant is never applied to management. Why?

We can call the owners' side selfish, arrogant, greedy. (Although the word "greedy" is usually applied to workers who tend to earn a lot less than the people they are negotiating with. These days workers who are working several jobs to patch together less than a living wage are routinely called greedy.) But we don't call the owner/management side of any labor disagreement "militant". Why? Does it violate the Chicago Style Book? Did Strunk and White outlaw this usage?

Why does militant always apply only to the side of the underclass, usually in cases where there is no whiff of violence, no threat of violence, no suggestion "if we don't get this we might do that", not even implied violence. Why not use the word "firm" or "resolute" or "stubborn" or "uncompromising"? Militant is always the label, and we are instructed to visualize muscular angry men with axe handles and burning torches.

Why do we even picture axe handles? There's a history there. In Pennsylvania in 1877, mine workers trying to organize were confronted by state police augmented by hired thugs armed with pick and axe handles. Violent mobs that were sent out to intimidate blacks trying to assert their rights in the South were often armed with axe handles. Where did you get a sufficient supply of axe handles? From factories producing axes and axe handles. Supplies of uniform weaponry were always on the side of management and authority. But it has always been workers who are labelled militant. Why? Why are we obediently following the same bias today?

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