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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

◊◊◊

Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

◊◊◊

I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

◊◊◊

A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

◊◊◊

It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

 ◊◊◊

A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

◊◊◊

It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.

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Glenn Greenwald on the Coordinated Police Crackdown of the Occupy Movement

It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

— Glenn Greenwald, from OWS Inspired Activism, in Salon.com.

I think Greenwald is right — the Occupy Movement isn’t going away so long as the economic injustices underlying it exist and are fueling it.

The other thing I’m wondering about this morning is who coordinated the raids on the Occupy sites in several cities.   An interesting take on that can be found here.

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America’s Future?

The economic crisis in advanced economies is accelerating the timeline in which big emerging nations like China rule the global economy. Instead of the market focusing on American shopping habits, they’ll be focused on consumers in Shanghai and Mumbai. Unless the US can recover the 8.5 million jobs it lost in the recession, and unless incomes begin rising, the US will be knocked off its pedestal within a generation.

In the US, the biggest problem is Washington. It is becoming clear that they work for maybe a hundred billionaires and five industry groups and that’s about it.

China still has a long way to go before it catches up with the US, and China is a command and control economy. China says that its style of economics is not for export, and other emerging nations, like Brazil, have not tried to emulate it. They don’t have to. Nor does India, or Thailand or Indonesia, for that matter. Their populations are getting richer, ours are getting poorer, with average incomes declining in 2009 and 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. Their corporations are investing at home and creating jobs; ours are either hamstrung from doing so, demanding more tax breaks from a revenue strapped government, or investing where the growth really is.

And where is it? Far and away from the US, new cities are being built, new industries, new entertainment centers rivaling Hollywood; new brands and a new middle class. In some of these countries, like Brazil, disparity between rich and poor is shrinking, not widening. It’s not Nirvana. It’s better. It’s worse. But it’s growing, and it’s hiring, and it is peaceful.

From “The Post-Western World“, posted in Forbes, by Kenneth Rapoza.

In making his case that the American reign is nearing its end, Rapoza quotes in his Forbes post from Noam Chompsky.

“It is a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay,” Giacomo Chiozza writes in the current Political Science Quarterly.

The theme is indeed widely believed. And with some reason, though a number of qualifications are in order. To start with, the decline has proceeded since the high point of U.S. power after World War II, and the remarkable triumphalism of the post-Gulf War `90s was mostly self-delusion.

Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted. The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.

The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office may in fact bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests.

From “America in Decline“, posted in Nation of Change, by Noam Chomsky.

It’s a strange day when thinkers such as Rapoza and Chomsky, who are on either ends of the ideological spectrum, agree about America’s prospects over the next 10 or 20 years.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety.

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Dean Baker on Alan Greenspan

Former Federal Reserve Board chair Alan Greenspan shared his wisdom on Face the Nation yesterday. His wise words were presented in the top of the hour news segment on Morning Edition.

Greenspan is best known for being unable to see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy. Given Greenspan’s obviously limited understanding of economics, one wonders if Face the Nation and NPR were unable to find a street drunk to share their views.

From “Greenspan on Face the Nation and Quoted on NPR“, posted on The Center for Economic and Policy Research website, by Dean Baker.

To some extent, Greenspan could symbolize the stupidity of America’s ruling elites.  Village idiots elevated to prestige and power.

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Some Reactions to the Debt Ceiling Deal

We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

From “The President Surrenders”, posted in The New York Times, by Paul Krugman.

◄►

How can the leader of the Democratic Party wage an all-out war on the ostensible core beliefs of the Party’s voters in this manner and expect not just to survive, but thrive politically?  Democratic Party functionaries are not shy about saying exactly what they’re thinking in this regard:

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said polling data showed that at this point in his term, Mr. Obama, compared with past Democratic presidents, was doing as well or better with Democratic voters. “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates,” Mr. Mellman said. “So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.”

In other words: it makes no difference to us how much we stomp on liberals’ beliefs or how much they squawk, because we’ll just wave around enough pictures of Michele Bachmann and scare them into unconditional submission. That’s the Democratic Party’s core calculation: from “hope” in 2008 to a rank fear-mongering campaign in 2012.

From “Democratic Politics in a Nutshell”, posted on Salon.com, by Glenn Greenwald.

◄►

Overheard: Thanks for protecting the job creators, you know for creating jobs for chauffeurs, valets, domestic help, and most importantly seamstresses who specialize in crafting $100 bills into luxurious overcoats. ~ Jim Cutler

From “US Debt Highlights ~ The Day After…”, posted on The Bis Key Chronicles, by Gandalfe

◄►

The protracted negotiations over the debt ceiling, as well as the final package agreed to by President Obama and the congressional leadership, show what happens when a small minority is allowed to gain control over national debate. While polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public sees jobs as the main problem facing the economy, there has been a well-funded crusade to ignore public opinion and make cuts to social insurance programs and other spending the top priority for Congress and the President.

From “Statement on the Debt Ceiling Deal“, posted on The Center for Economic and Policy Research Website, by Dean Baker.

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“Shame on you! you who make unjust laws and publish burdensome decrees, depriving the poor of justice, robbing the weakest of my people of their rights, despoiling the widow and plundering the orphan. What will you do when called to account, when ruin from afar confronts you? To whom will you flee for help?”

– Isaiah 10:1-3

From “A Warning to Congress”, posted on Dover Beach, by Θεόφιλος.

 

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Paul Krugman on How the Media is Distorting the Budget Debate

The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.

As I said, it’s not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.

The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

From “The Centrist Cop-Out”, posted in The New York Times, by Paul Krugman

A lot has changed about America in the past dozen or so years, but I think it’s still safe to say most Americans like to play fair.  And the notion that both sides are to blame, or the notion the truth lies somewhere in the middle,  appeals to our sense of fairness.

Unfortunately, that sense of fairness is no longer of much use in sorting out the facts.  Today, most of the problem is being caused by one side, the Republicans, who have turned into extremists on nearly every issue under the sun.  To portray both sides as equally responsible for the mess we’re in is unfair to those who are opposing the dominance of Republican Extremism.