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In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that a milestone was recently passed in the fight between liberals and progressives for the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps for the future of America.

THE CRITICS ADORE! “The eternally intolerable Sunstone has no more insight into politics than a six year old brat has into the chemistry of fire.  All Sunstone does in his recent post is play with matches, and quite predictably, he burns the house down.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

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On Heroes and the Death of John McCain

(About a 2 minute read)

To many people John McCain, who died yesterday, was a hero best remembered for his refusal when a POW to accept the offer of his captors for his personal freedom because it meant leaving his brothers behind.

To many others, McCain was the best of a bad lot — a politician who at least somewhat rose above the norm for politicians to show some political integrity and courage. I myself will always remember him as the man who rightfully stood up for the humanity of Barack Obama, his political opponent when he was running for the presidency.

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How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists

(About a 7 minute read)

Three days ago, I posted on how the division of societies into elites and non-elites was a relatively new thing in human history that began as recently as 5,500 years ago on the plains of Sumer.

Before that, our ancestors had lived in small hunting/gathering groups, and were fiercely jealous of their freedoms — so jealous that they resented and opposed any attempts by someone, or some group, to rise up above the others. In short, they were non-elitists, egalitarians. You can find that post here.

My post prompted the astute Sha’Tara to observe that there must have been some reason why the ancient Sumerians suddenly (in historical terms) decided to surrender their freedoms to a small group of elites, despite their egalitarian instincts and customs. That is an excellent question, a question I hope to address in this post.

Continue reading “How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists”

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A Sensible Reason We Should Love the Lawyers Among Us

(About a 5 minute read)

“There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief — resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”  — The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “Notes for a Law Lecture” (July 1, 1850), p. 82.

 

If you had just met my cousin, Ed, around 1975 or so, when he was at the height of his career, you might easily have formed a first impression of him as a former Boy Scout who had, however, never entirely left the Scouts.  In appearances, he had that air to him: An innocent man, if ever there was one.

Of course, in truth, he was among the most morally corrupt men of any professional class that I’ve known.  His career was not merely that of a lawyer, but of a political lobbyist on both the state and national levels.  Least anyone harbor illusions about the essence of that noble occupation, Cousin Ed’s job was to bribe people, and he excelled at it.

Around age 18 or so, I attended one of Ed’s parties where I witnessed an eye-opening (for me) conversation.  Ed was speaking to a small group of his closest friends — a group of at least moderately powerful bureaucrats for the most part: Men who ran departments of the State Government.  Naturally, the conversation was mere shop-talk to Ed and them.

On the other hand, I was still naive enough to find it hard to follow.  The last thing I expected was to hear how Ed had recently bribed a key US Senator, the head of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee, to vote to deregulate the Savings and Loan industry.  Although the Senator was not only a Democrat, but known as one of the nation’s more liberal Democrats, Ed had persuaded him to go along with Reagan’s eventually disastrous, crisis-causing, deregulation.

Now Ed wasn’t really bragging to his friends that evening.  Instead, he was merely alerting them to the news the industry was about to be deregulated, and so they should ASAP get into positions to make their fortunes.

The bribe was, to my mind, ingenious: A huge chunk of it was in the form of stock in a certain S&L — stock that was bound to soar in value if and when the Senator voted to deregulate.  His fortune was made — if only he carried through on his promise.  And leaving nothing to chance, Ed had also greased the palms of two or three of the Senator’s key aides.

But to me the fascinating thing was Ed’s manner in telling his friends the news. There was not a hint in his voice nor demeanor that he was talking about anything beyond the day’s weather.  My shock wasn’t so much from the corruption of bribing a US Senator, but from the casualness of it.

That evening, I formed almost on the spot the hasty and unfortunate opinion that lawyers routinely corrupted the democratic processes.  That is, I naively blamed them for it, as if no one would bribe senators were lawyers somehow banished.  And for years that was the bottom line for me.

Now I confess to being slow in every way but in bed.  In bed, I will proudly defend my impressive life-long record of reliably performing my “services” with lightening-fast efficiency.  So it took me a couple decades before I formed a more informed and honest opinion of lawyers.  Much before then, I really didn’t look into it.

The change began with my reading an article on the Gaza Strip in which the author pointed out in some detail the consequences of the Strip’s lack of any legal means whereby the people could settle their disputes.  Naturally, the disputes just didn’t evaporate simply because there were no courts, no judges, and no lawyers to resolve them.

No, what had actually happened was the people had fallen back on their families and on violence.  In effect, they had returned to the vendetta system.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  What other recourse did they have other than to organize into trusted family-based groups, and — at least ultimately — resort to arms to settle things?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to grasp how lawyers, along with the rest of the legal infrastructure, are about all that stands between a civilization and its reversion to anarchy and most likely barbarism — for what family gang is going to stop at merely settling scores when it pays off under those circumstances to not only settle them, but to settle them in cruel and extreme ways designed to warn and intimidate others into not messing with them?

Like most bad ideas, the notion lawyers are necessarily dishonest is a persistent one.  It has been around for far longer than Lincoln’s day — Shakespeare makes mention of it when he has “Dick the Butcher” propose to  “…kill all the lawyers” in Henry VI, in order of course, to bring about a better country.

But would such a country most likely be better?

As for my cousin, he wasn’t all bad.  At one point in my life, he gave me some of the wisest advice I’ve ever taken.  He pointed out in forceful terms — forceful enough to get me to actually listen even at a young age — that I would never have a chance to be happy in life if I followed through with my plan to go into politics.

“Paul, I hear you say you want to help clean up politics, make it better.  That’s a noble goal, and I believe you would do everything you could to stay honest and achieve your goal.

“But you need to realize before you make a huge mistake: Politics is a filthy, dirty business.  It won’t ever change from that, no matter what you yourself do to reform it.  You will be an ant trying to chew down a mountain.

“In the end, it will only commit your soul to living hell, just like it’s committed to hell almost every soul who has come before you.  I know.”

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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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The Incompetence of Elite Classes

An argument made against democracy is that the people are incompetent to govern themselves.  That may be true.  But history shows the same is most likely true of the elites.

The Soviet Union certainly wasn’t a well run country.  Nor was Mussolini’s Italy — it was a lie the trains ran on time.  It took the Third Reich’s elites about ten years to reduce their nation to rubble.  And we’ve just been offered evidence that government by elite Wall Street insiders does not work all that well in the US.

One could go on and on: Elites down through history seem to be no wiser than anyone else when it comes to government.  The notion that a privileged class is better at governing a people than the people themselves does not seem to have rational support.

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Draft Bernie Sanders for President 2012?

I stole the above chart from Kay’s blog.  The thought of Bernie Sanders challenging Barack Obama for the presidency made me curious about the answers to a number of questions.

For instance: I can easily believe Obama is to the right of most Americans these days, but is Sanders still to the left of most Americans?  Or has he moved right like all the other politicians?  And, if so, is he now in the middle?

Wouldn’t it be funny if Bernie Sanders is closer to mainstream public opinion in this country than either Barack Obama or the Republican members of our National Corporate Party?

I don’t suppose Sanders has a chance, but that’s not the same as saying Sanders would make a bad president.  If you feel like encouraging the old guy, you can sign the “Draft Bernie Petition” here.

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UPDATED:  Post corrected to reflect the fact Sanders is not in the same party as Obama.