Sunday, March 27, 2016

Are Saints Bad For Us?

Are saints really good for humanity? Or are they just salespeople for an afterlife they cannot truthfully guarantee? In selling the afterlife are they, in more practical terms, supporting the ungodly selfishness of the powerful here on earth?

Here's a good article about the problem of saints, published in the Daily Beast. (Lest you think the Daily Beast is somehow connected with the satanic beast of Revelations, the paper's name is borrowed from the satire of Evelyn Waugh, who was a profoundly Catholic author.)

Philosopher Susan Wolf wrote a more profound and influential essay on this conundrum in 1982.

Christopher Hitchens (who had his own contradictions) subjected the next saint-in-waiting to this harsh accounting in 2003.

As unhelpful as she could be to the earthly human being, she was far from the worst thing that could have happened to the people she helped. She could have been better, or worse. This is where pure ideology parts company with practical good, with help that actually helps.

Catholic as she was, there is something dolefully Calvinist about the helping done by missionaries. Calvinists put the highest priority on an afterlife not on this one. Self denial is the holiest way to live. Meanwhile the whole idea of delayed gratification is so harmful to the world’s poor. The rich delay satisfying their appetites and are guaranteed immense gratification at a later date.The poor's delayed comfort accrues immediately to those who live in luckier places and circumstances, it bolsters their profit margin, it enhances their market advantage, and their piddling donations to the global mission absolve their far greater selfishness and the way they rig the global economy to keep billions conveniently in poverty. This is why Mother Teresa was the perfect saint for our capitalist world.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance

Many Americans drive around and see prosperity. Nice shops, nice houses, nice communities. It’s a pleasant sight––but it’s not their life. If you are prosperous and feel your prosperity is secure this is nice and reassuring. Life is good! If you are financially insecure or you have friends or family who are struggling it isn’t reassuring at all. How many of those you see walking and driving amid all the visible prosperity see it as an insult or a threat: “These people are fine and I am not.” Narrow prosperity is all show, and the system––the economy, the justice system, money-based politics, even the larger churches––only serves and protects the few. The economy is increasingly excluding working people from prosperity; for them these visible riches are an insult. We watch the affluent on TV and read about them in glossy magazines. Is this entertainment? They are not us and we will never be invited to their party. We have become the pathetic figures in old movies, the ones pressing their noses hungrily to the window of the restaurant watching others eat. This set piece from old movies is the one that comes just before the hungry individual throws a brick, or a bomb. Vast inequalities are a recipe for violence. But before the violence erupts where we live we spend years ignoring how dysfunctional and impractical and inefficient these disparities are.

After a few decades of Kiss Up, Kick Down economics, the kicked may begin to hit back. Here are some relevant stories from the NC News Observer, The Guardian, The Washington Post and Salon.

In NC black voters are required to take a spelling test to vote; whites aren’t.

In FL the anti birth control crowd think that elementary schools and dentists and podiatrists can fill the gap created by their shutting down reproductive health centers.

The burden of taxes removed from the lucky people who own for a living is shifted onto the people who work for a living in the shape of penalties and fees, which are compounded if they haven’t got the ability to pay.

Want to start a new business? Better be rich.

Before you eat that shrimp cocktail realize that it’s probably the product of slave laborers.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Did The Lewis Powell Memo Create This Mess?

History unfolds from hinge moments. I have been wondering lately about the Lewis Powell memo and what larger things have unfolded from it. If a private memo is a small thing consider its effects if it galvanizes far greater powers and undoes important precedents.

Did the Powell memo (and the doctrine that it made) make corporate and wealthy America immune to their obligations to society, enabling them to levitate away from tax obligations and the necessary support and protection of institutions and infrastructure and the environment? Did it enable them to hoist (permanently, it appears) the justice system and the financial apparatus out of the reach of the vast majority of Americans? Did it then enable the justice system and financial system to be reorganized to prey on the wider population rather than serving it? (Granted, the law has a recurring habit of acting to protect property from people, to become an instrument of property without a primary obligation to people.)

Did the Powell memo make corporations and the belief system of wealthy Americans immune to inconvenient science? Did it make science subservient to the profit imperative? Did the Powell memo obligate all businesspeople to ignore and defy any science that might diminish their profits? Not just reverse their profits but cut into them. Did the Powell memo lead to the mindset that made the profit imperative the single obligation, the only sacred idea?

I got on this train of thought after seeing the story this morning where NASA scientists are now convinced climate change will unfold more suddenly and devastatingly than previously thought. That is moreso than we were previously led to think by the corporate deniers. I began to think how colossally stupid we’ve become in the space of a few decades. What was the off button on the American genius? I think it was the Powell memo’s assertion of money, overruling intelligent discourse. (The assertion of what I’ve called Moneythink on my blog. A dangerously corrupt and corrupting philosophy, if you can call it a philosophy.)

Business and Money and Markets and Corporations and the whole apparatus of our financial side used to obey basic norms to correct folly and regulate the “animal spirits” that cause problems. Those regulators were turned off subsequent to the assertion of corporate power and veto that followed the Powell memo.

One chief example of a useful regulator that was turned off is the insurance industry, which was bought and harnessed by large financial companies and told to make its functions serve the profit of the larger company rather than do its job, which was to place a cost on risks. The insurance business didn’t raise the costs of insuring harbor facilities or coastal properties or the longer term risks climate change represented to our agricultural infrastructure (civilizations are based upon reliable climate, and our civilization is therefore at high risk.) The insurance industry was told to keep its mouth shut and to tailor its charges for risk to suit the profit demands of the shareholders and the corporate parent, which probably was investing decades of premiums in very profitable fossil fuel investments.

If nothing else, the Powell memo gave Money a veto over Reason. It allowed the shareholder class to veto the warnings of scientists in the matter of climate change and to veto the legitimate demands and grievances of people who work for a living because they might limit the return on investment to people who own for a living. The only loyalty was to return on investment, no other obligation mattered. That was the central justification for Lewis Powell’s memo which evolved into a fiat: that concentrated money ought to assert the deciding vote on all of our public decisions, because money had a better brain than people did. This breathed legitimacy into the ludicrous Citizens United ruling that stated Money = Speech. And the similarly ludicrous Bush v Gore decision that stated that equal protection required the Court to intervene to protect the interests of George W Bush from irreparable harm by the voters who had voted against him. Money and patronage (the values the Powell memo places uppermost) were again the pollutant in that decision: how many of the justices who stepped in for Bush Jr. were appointed by Bush Sr.?

Once you make Money immune to intelligent discussion you give it control over the public conversation. Which is why we have a billionaire of low cunning dominating one of our political parties right now. Who are we non-billionaires to question his right to rule us? We have learned not to embarrass Money with difficult questions. The galvanizing moment in Ronald Reagan's presidential run came early, when he faced down the annoying challenge of some journalist, saying: "I paid for this microphone!" Except he hadn't. General Electric and a few decades of other corporate sponsors had. Reagan had been employed as their spokesmodel. He was the political incarnation of Lewis Powell's memo.

Are we all to blame? We voted for Reagan, and all his works and all his ways. We liked him. Half of us still worship him even though he presided over the theft of our prosperity via Reaganomics. He organized the redirection of wealth from the many to the few. Money isn't speech, but it can buy a lot of it. And it can buy the likable voice of an aging actor. Money isn't speech any more than Money equals thought or intelligence. By delegating more of our decisions to our money, which the Lewis Powell memo urged, we stopped thinking. And that is why we are surprised to learn the oceans will rise and there is no longer anything we can do about it. Maybe that is also why a handful of billionaires are using their tax-immune billions to build personal rocket ships.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Place Blame Where It Belongs

The recent arguments over the GOP's determination to block President Obama's constitutional obligation to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court have tended to return to the old canard that "both parties do this." Both parties are not equally extreme or rigid or prejudiced or hypocritical. One party is causing most of the dysfunction, even if, sadly and unfairly, most Americans have a habit of blaming everyone in elected office.

Which makes it worth re-reading an op-ed from a few years ago by two of the more clear-eyed political observers, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann.

Saying both parties are to blame for the dysfunction we’ve seen in recent years is the result of public laziness. Or perhaps it's exhaustion. Either way it flows from a bad habit in our journalism and the news media who are supposed to moderate and referee our public discourse. I’m referring to the bad habit of false equivalency or false balancing.

“Both sides do it” was Nixon’s defense when a bit of political spying exposed the massive corruption in his presidency. It's also the defense given by five year olds who want to misbehave like the friends their parents don't want them to hang around with.

I’m reminded of something that happened at a friend’s house when I was eight or nine. The older brother was in the rec room pounding the hell out of my friend when their mother came in. She didn’t drag the older brother off and send him to his room; she yelled at both of them and punished both of them for fighting. This is false equivalency: if one party is doing wrong, whether beating or lying or cheating, it is somehow “unfair” to punish or rebuke the one that is offending without also rebuking and punishing the other, the victim. Both were fighting. "It takes two to make a fight." If one party does wrong something in our sense of fairness requires us to say, “Well, both were probably to blame.” This is why we hear people say that the victim of a crime probably asked for it, the beaten wife probably shouldn’t have provoked her husband, the rape victim should have dressed more primly or not gone outside after dark. This kind of lazy rationalization licenses the wrongdoer.

A lot of Americans have expressed disappointment with President Obama because he "doesn’t fight hard enough" for what the Democrats want to achieve, because he doesn’t go full-on political with the Republicans who have embargoed his presidency from day one. But when Obama was elected most Americans breathed a giant sigh of relief because he promised to preside as a moderate, as someone willing to look for common ground, willing to get things done, willing to avoid the bitter partisanship which had disgusted Americans in recent years. Americans applauded his promise to keep away from the nastiness that obsesses the other party. When others got ugly, he did not. When a freshman congressman called him a liar at the State of the Union, he answered civilly and without rancor, because it was a ludicrous and ugly remark. When idiots like Donald Trump questioned his birth certificate he laughed; it was the only sane response to a stupid charge that was provably false and proven to be so.

We’ve heard it seriously suggested by Republicans that Obama has been a divisive president. And there has been no moderate voice to point out what a stupid suggestion this is. The news media has simply reported the Republicans are saying it. They have reported it endlessly without invalidating it or even questioning it. (Just as they have covered Donald Trump’s candidacy without examining his statements or positions for validity or falsehood or bigotry or contradictions.) Calling Obama divisive is a bit like blaming the black family down the street for the burned spot in their front yard. True, that cross would not have been burned there if they had not been black and had not lived in that house. But it is deeply wrong and dishonest to blame the victim for the offenses committed against him. These things are an offense to all of us; perhaps we are all to blame.

All the evidence––the comments, the obstruction, the disrespectful comments by Republican officials, the outright hatred in the comments sections in newspapers and websites––tells us that the Republican base believes Obama was divisive simply because he was elected as a black man. Having a black family living in the White House upsets and somehow “insults” the base of the Republican Party––therefore it was “divisive" of Barack Obama to win the office. And twice as "divisive" to win it twice. That this ludicrous charge isn't greeted with broad disgust shows how corrupted our public conversation has become. Other ugly ideas flow from this unrepudiated and racist sentiment in the Republican base. It now seems the Republicans feel––since the Constitution stated that black Americans were only 3/5 of a human being––that any black American president should have a similarly limited presidency, say three years instead of four. This is difficult to dispute if you believe the Constitution was perfect as written, as if it was a sacred text from God, complete with its slavery provisions, and this is what most Republicans seem to believe. Especially canvassed en masse. One member of a mob will tend to uphold the consensus of the entire body no matter how ugly it is.

This core belief among Republicans that Democrats––and especially Democrats of color––are illegitimate is a deep seated, habitual, and outright form of bigotry. And it is a core part of the Republican brand. It has been so ever since the Democratic Party embraced civil rights and the Republican Party happily invited all the racists to join the GOP. It was written into the party’s campaign strategy in the Southern Strategy that elected Nixon to the White House twice.

A good short piece on the Republicans' Southern Strategy from Bloomberg.

Because Americans prize civility we are barred from calling this racism or bigotry, and we are barred by our news media’s habit of false equivalency from calling the Republican Party racist and bigoted, even when it is, but failure to call out bigotry tends to license it. When we (or our news media) accept a political extremist’s values without opposing or rejecting them we see the political middle skewed toward that extremism.

The center shifts. The standards of validity are rewritten to accommodate what was formerly unacceptable. Just as failure to call out a lie against science and reason shifts public opinion toward the lie and away from the scientific truth. People have a habit of balancing opposing arguments, and if the false argument is not repudiated, whether out of politeness or laziness or cowardice or bad habit, it corrupts the public conversation and the public conception of what is true. Barack Obama has chosen to match political extremism and bigotry and anti-science unreason and outright dishonesty with moderation and reason and tolerance and honesty.

Reason has a disadvantage when it is confronted by unreason. Unreason is louder, it is more fanatical, it is more stubborn, it is narrow minded and will not listen to dispute. President Obama has responded reasonably and tolerantly to the unreason and bigotry of his opponents. Does answering intolerance with tolerance make him a hypocrite? No. He was only tolerant in allowing the bigots the freedom to speak. As Voltaire put it “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Which puts truth and science and reason and tolerance at a tactical disadvantage. When the Democratic Party repudiated racism the Republicans seized that opening. Knowing that no politician would win by calling the voters bigots, the GOP decided to embrace the bigots and this tactical advantage.

Which means that reasonable people need to engage in the argument instead of relaxing in the comfortable belief that they are right and the comfortable habit of not getting angry about someone else’s offensive beliefs. We cannot relax and feel confident that falsehood will be evident to everyone hearing it. We cannot be confident that everyone will see and repudiate racism or unreason or hypocrisy or unAmerican values without our taking the trouble to point them out. We are obligated to repudiate bigotry and unreason and dysfunction and to place the blame for these things squarely on those causing them. If we do not we are making it likelier that the ugly dishonest things we deplore will become the norm.

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Wage Theft: The Old Evil That Won't Die

VOX posted this recent article about Wage Theft

The Guardian posted this article earlier today.

The Nation published this story about the most common victims of wage theft: freelancers.

This article is about wage theft in Minnesota.

UCLA has this useful primer on what wage theft is and how it is done.

I’ve used the phrase Kiss Up/ Kick Down a lot recently. This is a perfect example. Laws in this and most countries protect property from people, which means the laws protect people with property from the people who work for them. The unpropertied, unwealthy people who work for a living are easy to exploit, at least partly because the laws are not there to protect them, and when the laws are there the legal system isn’t. The legal system often treats labor laws like a body rejecting a transplanted organ. The ideas that protect property from people begin from the premise that property is sacred and people are a damned nuisance. Property may like to have casual laborers to do occasional odd jobs but once the work is done they’d like them to move along, preferably without demanding their wages. Granted, this is an antique and obsolete idea, fully repudiated by the protections written into law since the New Deal. The Reagan Revolution was organized around the hope that these worker protections could be undone.

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Friday, March 04, 2016

Fascism: Can It Happen Here?

It happened before in another educated industrialized country. Books were written about it. Milton Mayer's book was one of the best. He interviewed ten ordinary Germans in depth to discover how they'd been led down that path.

An excerpt from Milton Mayer’s THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE FREE: THE GERMANS 1933-45

How did it happen then? Is it happening again now? The resemblances are disturbing: people who aren’t paying attention, people who are uninterested in the truth and more interested in what is popular, people who want a complete change from what we have and are eager to have an authoritarian government.

The German magazine Der Spiegel is calling Donald Trump the most dangerous man in the world.

How did this happen here?

Was it the well documented Deception Industry which urges people to disbelieve science and the advice of experts?

Was it FoxNews, which pumped us full of disinformation?

Are people eager for a dictator because they’ve been so skillfully confused––just so they don’t have to make decisions themselves?

George Will, who helped build this Republican Party, has finally grown alarmed by what he made.

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi describes what has happened and how it happened.

VOX explains Trump's particular brand of authoritarianism.

Hand-wringing from the conservative middle-American beacon, The Chicago Tribune.

In the 1930s Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, about a fascist demagogue who is elected to the presidency and quickly makes of this country what Hitler made of Germany. Can it happen here?

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