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Entries for January 2011

January 28, 2011

"I'm a good Catholic girl"

I'm at a conference and the moderator at a session that I attended gave us an anecdote during which she said "I'm a good Catholic girl". Was I offended at her injecting religion into a secular meeting? Of course not. She wasn't preaching to us, it was just a passing comment, inserted for humorous purposes and we all laughed.

But what if she had said, "I'm a good atheist girl"? I bet you that that there would have been sharp intakes of breaths and some mutterings that she had delivered a gratuitous slap at religion. This is the protective shield that religion has built around itself that has to be dismantled.

The basis for joint action

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

There is much in common between what the tea partiers and progressives seek, as can be seen in this informative joint interview on Fox News with Ralph Nader, a lifelong progressive, and Ron Paul, a tea party favorite.

Look at the list of things they agree on: Opposing corporate control of government, bloated military budgets, undeclared wars, corporate bailouts, invasion of civil liberties and civil rights, opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, trade deals like NAFTA and WTO, stronger whistleblower protections, support for WikiLeaks, opposition to runaway deficits, and bringing transparency to the actions of the Federal Reserve and putting it under democratic control.

When it comes to health care, they both support the repeal of the legislation passed last year because it adds to corporate control of the system but each would like to replace it with different things. Nader wants a single payer system while Paul wants what he calls a free market system. I think Nader's comment right at the end addresses a misunderstanding that people like Paul have in that a single-payer system (like in France) does not mean that government 'takes over' and delivers health care. Doctors and hospitals will still be private but what would be eliminated is the multiplicity of for-profit health insurance firms that do not add anything of value but simply introduce a vast and expensive bureaucratic layer between doctor and patient.

To form alliances with elements of the Tea Party and other groups that progressives have opposed will require a much better understanding of coalition politics than currently exists in the US. Coalition political strategy is nothing like the 'bipartisanship' that is so much beloved by the Villagers. Coalition politics means two things: identifying those items that we can agree upon and can garner mass support; and being willing to work with others on the basis of whether they agree with you on those specific issues, irrespective of whether we like those groups in general. The label affixed to people or their views on other issues should be immaterial. In coalition politics, there are always shifting alliances, and the people who work with you on one issue may oppose you on the next. But that is part of the deal.

The reason that political movements splinter and cease to be effective is because we get so angry with people and groups because they disagree with us on things we care strongly about that we refuse to work with them on other things that we also care strongly about, and so nothing gets done. But this does not make sense. After all, when we work on (say) getting single payer health care, some of the people who join us may well have views on other issues that we would find uncongenial or even hateful but we don't know it because the topic may never come up. So why does knowing about it make any difference?

Is it distasteful to work on (say) opposing government suppression of First Amendment rights alongside people who may be racists and homophobes? Of course it is. But politics is not about feeling good or pure. It is about getting the results we think are important. We should be willing to work with the devil if the devil agrees with us on what to do about a specific agenda item. For example, readers of this blog know that I think that we would much better off without religion. But when it comes to fighting oppressive governments in Central and South America, some religious groups are doing wonderful work and I support them.

To make this happen we have to realize that the focus has to be on the things that we agree on. Note that the list of things that Paul and Nader agree on are all related to important economic and civil liberties issues. It should not matter that progressives and tea partiers and paleo-conservatives and libertarians differ on many social issues. Coming together on the above common agenda alone will bring about a vastly different and better country.

We also have to realize that the tea partiers are themselves victims of the oligarchy. Their politics and analyses of the situation are what they are because the oligarchic alliance of business, government, and media have misled them about the causes of their discontent. The Palin-Beck-Limbaugh axis of misinformation is, whether consciously or not, a tool of the oligarchy because they are the means by which popular anger is being deliberately directed towards those issues that oligarchy does not care two cents about (guns, abortion, gays, race, Muslims, immigration, terrorism, welfare, etc.) but which serve to divide us and prevent us from joining forces to fight the oligarchy on the things that do affect them.

I have referred in this series to the transglobal oligarchy as if it were a monolith. And they are when it comes to protecting oligarchic interests, even though they may well differ strongly on issues relating to national interests. The point is that they can put aside those differences and unite on the things that benefit the oligarchy and this is what gives them their strength. Those who oppose the oligarchy have to learn to do the same.

Our best hope is to engage with those disaffected elements in the tea party and try and shift their focus from their current obsessions so that they see who their true enemies are. If we make a concerted effort do so, there is a possibility that at some point these people will see the root causes of their problem. In order to achieve that, progressives, rather than issuing blanket condemnations of the movement and spending a lot of effort decrying the undoubtedly xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and outright nutty elements in their ranks, will have to instead appeal to those in the tea party movement for whom economic and civil liberties issues are their main concern and are willing to overlook differences on social issues. Rather than falling into the trap of dwelling on these divisive issues, progressives and tea partiers should agree to disagree on them and pool their energies on the things they agree upon. The efforts of Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to build a coalition platform for joint action is a good start.

Building this coalition will not be easy because there is a steady and concerted effort by the oligarchy and its media allies to focus attention on those things that divide this coalition because the last thing they want to see is people getting together to take aim squarely at oligarchic interests.

January 27, 2011

Another path for the future

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

If an economic calamity is to be averted in the US, it will require a popular revolt against the power of the oligarchy because the political leadership is not going to do take action against it.

The Democratic Party is unlikely to be the leader of a mass movement for change because its base is far too quick to capitulate to its party leadership. The party's base seems to be always bewildered as to why their party does not follow through on its promises but as Glenn Greenwald points out, it is absurd for progressives to be puzzled by Obama's willingness, even eagerness, to capitulate to his seeming political opponents, because it they who are enabling this very behavior. It is worth quoting him at length.

Why, angry progressives seem to be asking, would Obama ignore the views of his so-called "progressive base" while seeking to please those who are his political adversaries?

But it's perfectly rational for Obama to do exactly that. There's a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do. The groups which Obama cares about pleasing -- Wall Street, corporate interests, conservative Democrats, the establishment media, independent voters -- all have one thing in common: they will support only those politicians who advance their agenda, but will vigorously oppose those who do not. Similarly, the GOP began caring about the Tea Party only once that movement proved it will bring down GOP incumbents even if it means losing a few elections to Democrats.

That is exactly what progressives will never do. They do the opposite; they proudly announce: we'll probably be angry a lot, and we'll be over here doing a lot complaining, but don't worry: no matter what, when you need us to stay in power (or to acquire it), we're going to be there to give you our full and cheering support. That is the message conveyed over and over again by progressives, no more so than when much of the House Progressive Caucus vowed that they would never, ever support a health care bill that had no robust public option, only to turn around at the end and abandon that vow by dutifully voting for Obama's public-option-free health care bill. That's just a microcosm of what happens in the more general sense: progressives constantly object when their values and priorities are trampled upon, only to make clear that they will not only vote for, but work hard on behalf of and give their money to, the Democratic Party when election time comes around.

I'm not arguing here with that decision. Progressives who do this will tell you that this unconditional Party support is necessary and justifiable because no matter how bad Democrats are, the GOP is worse. That's a different debate. The point here is that -- whether justified or not -- telling politicians that you will do everything possible to work for their re-election no matter how much they scorn you, ignore your political priorities, and trample on your political values is a guaranteed ticket to irrelevance and impotence. Any self-interested, rational politician -- meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle -- will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional. And they're well-advised to do exactly that.

It is probably the case that a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base contributed to the Democrats' defeat in the 2010 midterm election. But what Obama cares about is getting re-elected in 2012, and he knows full well that come March or April of that year -- if not earlier -- most of the progressives who are now continuously complaining about him will be at the front of the line waving their Obama banners, pulling out their checkbooks and whipping into line anyone who is not similarly supportive. By contrast, corporate institutions and Wall Street tycoons will pour their money into Obama's defeat if he does not show them the proper level of deference and accommodate their policy demands, but will support him (as they did in 2008) if he pleases them. Resource disparities between those factions are significant, but it's also due in part to their own choices that Wall Street is empowered, and progressives are irrelevant.

This is why the oligarchy is most successful in its attempts at squeezing the poor and the working and middle classes when Democrats are in power.

It is for this reason that I see the Republican Party's base in the tea party, for all its manifest faults, as more likely to create the conditions for change than the Democratic Party's base. The latter is still stuck in a passive mode that puts their faith in a leader. Some of them still see Obama as that savior while others are getting disillusioned and are seeking a new hero. Their desperate need for a noble standard bearer who will fight their battles for them is something that saps their energies. In the words of Galileo (put into his mouth by playwright Bertolt Brecht in his Life of Galileo), "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

At least the Republican base is wary and suspicious of their leadership. At least they realize that political leaders should fear them and that it is up to them to be vocal and active in putting pressure on them. Their growing suspicion that they are being manipulated by their political leadership at least provides some hope for a re-awakening and organizing.

What progressives need to do is develop a common agenda with those who are also disaffected with the power of the oligarchy. This will require a different attitude towards the Tea Party, paleo-conservatives, and libertarians. Rather than wholesale rejection of those groups, we should seek to form alliances on those issues that we can agree upon, and there are surprisingly many.

Next: A possible common agenda

January 26, 2011

Oscars for news

Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday. Over in Australia, The Chasers give out their own Oscars for news programs.

God is alive and well and still slaughtering animals

It turns out that about 200 cows suddenly died in Wisconsin, which, along with other recent reports of mass deaths of birds and fish, are taken as signs that the end times are near.

Such mass deaths are not uncommon and only seem so because the media's interest is triggered by one unusual event and they then report every subsequent similar event as if they are mysteriously connected, until it gets bored and moves on to a new pseudo-trend. But religious folk, ever eager for a sign that their god is still around, desperately seize upon these natural events as evidence of the supernatural.

The US as a destabilizing threat to the transglobal oligarchy

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

The main threat to the transglobal oligarchy does not come from those countries that we normally think of as being unstable but from the US, because of the rapacity of the financial sector of the US economy that, like a swarm of locusts, is consuming everything in sight in satiating its greed, leaving the rest of the economy and the country bare. And their enablers are both the Republican and Democratic parties.

nonsequitur.gif

Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF, in an article (that I referred to before in my 2009 series of posts on the American oligarchy) says that the financial sector has captured the US government and that the US shows a disturbing similarity to those countries that used to be derisively called banana republics. He says the recent financial crisis made visible to everyone the oligarchic control of government.

But there's a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a "buck stops somewhere else" sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for "safety and soundness" were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector's profits—such as Brooksley Born's now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The financial industry has not always enjoyed such favored treatment. But for the past 25 years or so, finance has boomed, becoming ever more powerful. The boom began with the Reagan years, and it only gained strength with the deregulatory policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Several other factors helped fuel the financial industry's ascent. Paul Volcker's monetary policy in the 1980s, and the increased volatility in interest rates that accompanied it, made bond trading much more lucrative. The invention of securitization, interest-rate swaps, and credit-default swaps greatly increased the volume of transactions that bankers could make money on. And an aging and increasingly wealthy population invested more and more money in securities, helped by the invention of the IRA and the 401(k) plan. Together, these developments vastly increased the profit opportunities in financial services.

Johnson argues that given this diagnosis of the problem, the prescription is straightforward: we need to get rid of the oligarchy, starting with breaking up all the 'too big to fail' banks and financial institutions that now dominate the US economy. But who will bell this particular cat? The government has, at least in theory, the power to do so. But the two major political parties are so beholden to the oligarchy and embedded with them that they are not going to take the initiative. Johnson seems to think that the necessary pressures to change will have to come from outside the system.

The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we'll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe's banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration's current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy "stress scenario" that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks' balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.

Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated… If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

Columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall says that the situation is already too far gone for any hope of orderly change within the current system and sees a collapse coming unless there is a political revolution.

The prospect of a global economic meltdown or an actual revolution is obviously not a cheery one. If the US economy nosedives, not only will it cause a lot of misery here, it will undoubtedly drag a lot of other nations down with it, at least in the short run, because of the deep interconnections in the world's economies.

Next: An alternative way forward?

January 25, 2011

Chaser's vocabulary

Chaser is a border collie that not only can identify over a thousand objects by name, she even knows basic grammar and the three verbs paw, nose, and fetch, thus being able to distinguish what she was expected to do with each object. That is not all. She could also recognize categories, in other words common nouns. "She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar."

Chaser will appear in the PBS show Nova on February 9.

Chaser learned one or two new words each day, requiring four or five hours of daily practice. That is some dedication. My own dog Baxter, while an eager learner, tends to call it a day after about fifteen minutes and go off and take a nap. "Everything in moderation" seems to be his motto.

I was intrigued to read that in order for her trainer to remember what he had called the thousand objects, he wrote the name of each on the object with indelible ink. It is, of course, possible that Chaser is so smart that she had learned to read, thus saving herself the trouble of learning the names of all the objects.

Coming soon: "Tim Pawlenty – the Movie"

Is this spot by a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination the future of political advertising?

How Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I have repeatedly said that progressives have to be most on the alert when Democrats are in power. It is under Democratic administrations that the oligarchy tries to achieve major goals because the party's base, ever-vigilant to guard against encroachments when Republicans hold power, falls asleep when their own party is at the helm. We see Obama doing things in the name of national security that would have evoked howls of protest if Bush had done them. We see Obama treating Wall Street with a generosity that would be loudly protested if a Republican did it.

The big prize for the oligarchy is, of course, Social Security. The privatization of Social Security has been a long-cherished dream of Wall Street anxious to get their hands on that trillion-dollar account. In general, Republicans have been thwarted when they tried to do it. George W. Bush tried to privatize it in his second term but was beaten back and gave up on it. The Democratic Party has long been seen as the defenders of Social Security, which is why the oligarchy sees it as a better agent for achieving its goals.

It is not well known that Bill Clinton also secretly set in motion attempts to privatize (they use the euphemism 'reform' or 'save') Social Security, following his successful move to gut welfare programs for the poor. These secret plans were well advanced and getting down to the level of fine-tuning details in preparation for a public announcement. But as Robin Blackburn explains in this 2004 article, he was thwarted, not by the party's base, but by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which forced him to appease his base in order to save his political skin.

We have this on the authority of high-ranking members of the Clinton Treasury who gathered in Harvard in the summer of 2001 to mull over the lessons of the 1990s. At that conclave it was revealed that on Clinton's orders a top secret White House working party had been established to study in detail the basis for a bipartisan policy on Social Security that would splice individual accounts into the program. Such was the delicacy of this exercise that meetings of the group were flagged under the innocent rubric "Special Issues" on the White House agenda.

In the mid-1990s pessimism about the future of Social Security was rife in seminars, conferences, op-eds and learned papers by which elite consensus is fashioned. The media lent an eager ear to charlatanry from outfits like the Third Millennium, which ventriloquized a supposed consensus amongst youth that the program would not be there for them when they came to retire - and that consequently their best bet was to take their FICA payments and put them in a private share account in soar-away Wall Street.

Third Millennium was, of course, a front for the privatization lobby. But it did tap into a vein of public anxiety and skepticism concerning Social Security finances and, with the stock market soaring upward, its Wall Street connections were an asset not a liability.

But in 1998 the Lewinsky scandal burst upon the President, and as the months sped by and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to a looming reality, Clinton's polls told him that his only hope was to nourish the widespread popular dislike for the hoity-toity elites intoning Clinton's death warrant.

In an instant Clinton spun on the dime and became Social Security's mighty champion, coining the slogan "Save Social Security First".

In his 1999 State of the Union address Clinton seized the initiative from the privatizers with a bold new plan that gave substance to the "Save Social Security First" slogan. He proposed that 62 per cent of the budget surplus should be used to build up the Social Security trust fund. He promised to veto any attempt to divert Social Security funds to other uses, and he urged that 15 per cent of the trust fund should be invested in the stock market, not by individuals but by the Social Security Administration.

The first part of the plan to privatize Social Security, which has long been in evidence, is to soften up the public by persuading all people that the system is in dire crisis, and especially the young, that they are being ripped off because Social Security will not be there for them when they retire. This is a lie. There is no long-term problem with Social Security that cannot be fixed with minor tinkering within the system. This graph of the Social Security trustees projections of future financial status (as a percentage of GDP) shows that there are no runaway costs in Social Security in the foreseeable future and the gap between revenue and outlays can be easily closed. Furthermore, the current surplus in the trust fund (well over three trillion dollars) that has been built up over the years can be used to fund the deficit in the current account at least over the next two or three decades without any changes at all in the system.

socialsecurityprojections.gif

The economic minds behind Clinton's moves were Larry Summers and Gene Sperling, both of whom are now close Obama advisors. There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama also wants to raid Social Security in some way to benefit the oligarchy, to do what Clinton and Bush could not. His reduction of the payroll tax contribution and his adoption of the alarmist rhetoric about the need to 'fix' Social Security has laid the groundwork for meddling with it. You can be sure that his economic team is already working on it. The real question is when he will reveal the details of what he has in mind, whether he will keep his plans secret for longer or whether he will reveal at least part of it in this year's State of the Union speech to be given this evening.

The cautious thing to do would be for Obama to wait until his second term, like Clinton and Bush, so that he does not have to worry about any negative impact on his re-election chances. But Obama seems to have an arrogant confidence about his ability to get his followers to rally behind him whatever he does, and he may well think that he can tackle Social Security now and escape unscathed.

And he will unless people protest loud and long. Monica Lewinsky played her part. Now it is up to the rest of us to save Social Security.

January 24, 2011

"I'm offended when you say you are an atheist"

On CNN, Piers Morgan asks Ricky Gervais why he offended people at the Golden Globes award show by thanking god for making him an atheist. Gervais points out the absurdity of such an attitude.

How the KKK got its name and uniform

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

Recent cracks in the oligarchy

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I wrote earlier about how cracks appeared in the oligarchy during the late stages of the Vietnam war. In that case, the oligarchy split between those businesses for whom the war remained a good thing because their businesses directly benefited from the war effort, and those for whom it was a bad thing because the people and resources that might have benefited them were being drained away to service a war that seemed to have no end. In the current situation, while the pressures due to an over-extended military are still there, the split in the oligarchy is more likely to occur between the financial sector and the manufacturing/agricultural sector because the financial sector is increasingly being seen as a parasite that produces little of value but instead becomes bloated by sucking the blood out of the productive sectors of the economy, all with the active collusion of the government. These cracks in the oligarchy are being widened by its out-of-control rapacity, as sectors within it seek to advance at the expense of others. This intraoligarchic competition to see who can enrich themselves the most will likely less to its own downfall.

Even some establishment journalists like Frank Rich of the New York Times have noticed how things have gone way too far in favoring the financial sector:

The obscene income inequality bequeathed by the three-decade rise of the financial industry has societal consequences graver than even the fundamental economic unfairness. When we reward financial engineers infinitely more than actual engineers, we "lure our most talented graduates to the largely unproductive chase" for Wall Street riches, as the economist Robert H. Frank wrote in The Times last weekend. Worse, Frank added, the continued squeeze on the middle class leads to a wholesale decline in the quality of American life — from more bankruptcy filings and divorces to a collapse in public services, whether road repair or education, that taxpayers will no longer support.

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene. It's shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance… Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash's con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he's fronting for the industry even if he's not.

We can expect to see this 'wholesale decline in the quality of American life' continue because the oligarchy is demanding it. As Chrystia Freeland writes in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite:

The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world's largest hedge funds told me that his firm's investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today's economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn't really matter. "His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that's not such a bad trade," the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he's nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. "We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world," he told me. "So if you're going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut."

Whether one agrees with the sentiments expressed or not (the case that there should not be such a great disparity between the average person in America and the rest of the world is perfectly defensible), what is interesting to notice is how these private individuals are casually planning the future of the world and how to distribute its resources, with the expectation that governments will go along with their decisions. Governments are followers of the oligarchy, not leaders.

But how much can the oligarchy push their agenda on the world without pushback? Freeland suggests that they may be overplaying their hand.

But if the plutocrats' opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn't modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn't working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts.

The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren't already too isolated to recognize this.

The transglobal divide between the very rich and the rest of us will lead to popular unrest. This is more likely to happen in the US because while inequalities in other major emerging economies like China, India, Russia, and Brazil are also increasing, there is still an improvement in the average standard of living of the people in those countries. China, as just one example, is investing heavily in new infrastructure, creating a vast network of roads and high-speed rail to name one big item. Similar movement is visible in the other emerging markets. It is in the US where inequalities are increasing while average standards of living are either stagnating or declining and infrastructure is decaying as the anti-tax zealots demand cuts in government spending at federal, state, and local levels.

The popular perception (right or wrong) is that these other emerging countries are modernizing while the US is decaying, which is why the US is so unstable.

Next: The US as a destabilizing threat to the transglobal oligarchy.

January 23, 2011

100 best movie quotes of all time

Jerry Coyne provides links to film clips that show the 100 best movie quotes of all time. Can you guess which one is #1?

Here's the first twenty.

Rather than quibble with the list or its rankings (after all, these were done by some anonymous person and reflect just his or her opinions), I found it fun to watch all the clips and note how many I had seen.

The latest idiocy

Apparently the willingness of people to be duped by hucksters into believing that inanimate objects wield magical powers that can improve their lives has resulted in the popularity of something called 'Power Balance' bands, a silicone band containing a hologram. It seems like all it takes is for some celebrity to endorse some nonsense for others to rush out and buy them, even if there is zero evidence in its favor. Articles about these things never seem to include people who buy these things and then have their lives take a turn for the worse.

I blame religion for this kind of idiocy. It encourages people to believe in magic, and once you go down that anti-science road, you become a sucker just waiting to be taken in by hucksters.

The no-fly list as a means of coercion

Gulet Mohamed, whose story I have written about before, is back in the US.

His case illustrates how the US government, headed by that noted constitutional scholar Barack Obama, subverts the constitutional protections of its citizens by using the no-fly list to coercively detain and interrogate citizens in other countries which have far fewer protections, at least on paper.

Civil liberties groups charge that his case is the latest episode in which the U.S. government has temporarily exiled U.S. citizens or legal residents so they can be questioned about possible terrorist links without legal counsel.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. government on behalf of 17 citizens or legal residents who were not allowed to board flights to, from or within the United States, presumably because, like Mohamed, they were on the government's no-fly list. Of those stranded overseas, all were eventually told they could return, often after they agreed to speak to the FBI. None was arrested upon their return.

The ACLU suit, filed in Portland, Ore., alleges that Americans placed on the no-fly list are denied due process because there is no effective way to challenge their inclusion.

There is a weird Orwellian quality to the no-fly lists.

The government does not acknowledge that any particular individual is on the no-fly list or its other watch lists. Nor will it reveal the exact criteria it uses to place people on its list… But U.S. officials insist that the process used to place individuals on the no-fly list is legal and well founded, and relies on credible intelligence.

Right. After all, the government has such a good reputation for telling the truth and behaving according to the law so why shouldn't we trust it implicitly?

As Nat Hentoff writes, we are allowing the creation of a system of secret rules and prisons to be used at the will and discretion of the president, outside the range of the constitution.

January 22, 2011

Media filters at work

Apparently that portion of the press conference where Chinese president Hu Jintao was asked about human rights issues was blacked out in the state-run China media. Damian Grammaticas, the Beijing correspondent of BBC News, says smugly, "Just hearing a Chinese president deal with direct questions on human rights is incredibly rare. In China the heavily state-controlled media doesn't pose them”

But when have you heard anyone in the major US media ask Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton at a press conference how the US can lecture other countries on human rights when it is itself a serious serial violator?

The point is that the filters in the media that weed out independent thinkers works so well that it would never occur to almost all those who rise to the level of being allowed into these press conferences to pose such a question. Any journalist who had the temerity to do so would be frozen out by the government (and even his or her colleagues) and never be called upon again and would have to be replaced by his organization. This would be a bad career move and journalists likely realize this, at least at a gut level.

This is why the US does not have to be so crude as China and censor broadcasts. The media does it itself perfectly well.

Single payer health insurance system in India

There is a common misunderstanding that the single payer system of health insurance means that the government provides all the health services. That is not true. There are many systems of single payer in which doctors and hospitals are private. It is just that the multiplicity of for-profit health insurance firms that do not add anything of value but simply introduce a vast and expensive bureaucratic layer between doctor and patient would be eliminated.

This story from the public radio program Marketplace shows how even in the rural farming sector in India, introducing a single payer system called Yeshavini has resulted in a vast improvement in health care at very low cost.

[W]hile Congress, and the rest of the country, continue to argue over who's helped and who's hurt by health care reform, the world's cheapest health insurance program can be found in India. It covers at least 4 million of that country's poorest farmers with a fairly simple philosophy: More patients means lower costs.

About a third of all of the patients at [Dr. Devi] Shetty's hospital are farmers from rural villages. They're here because they have something called Yeshaswini insurance. It doesn't cover routine doctors visits for, say, a cough or a cold, but the insurance does cover all surgical procedures. The farmer pays approximately three cents a month; the government puts in one and a half cents and farmers cooperatives operate the program.

That volume actually allows them to negotiate really good deals, lower costs of medical equipment and drugs. And the success rate for surgery at Shetty's hospital is as good as hospitals in the U.S. at a fraction of the cost.

Typically, farmers have to sell their land, take out crippling loans or just not have surgery. That's why Yeshaswini insurance is immensely popular. Farmers can choose from any one of 350 hospitals in the region.

Dr. Julius Punnen is a cardiac surgeon who helped set up the program. He says every day the hospital battles with private insurance companies to get reimbursed. But Yeshaswini is different. It was designed to provide treatment.

The private for-profit health insurance companies are a cancer on the health care system that must be eliminated.

January 21, 2011

Bill Maher on the US Founding Fathers

Jan. 14, 2011 Clip - New Rule: Founding Fathers

(via onegoodmove)

The nature of oligarchic power

One of the famous sayings of Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book was that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

That saying still holds true. The US oligarchy has disproportionate influence within the transglobal oligarchy because it has the military strength of the US behind it. This is why we can expect to see China develop its military strength over time, as it must if it is to have ambitions of becoming either the world's premier power or at least on a par with the US, as all indications suggest that they want to be, despite their denials. But military power can only be sustained over an extended period if there is a sound economic base. Otherwise, one can have a collapse from within, as was the case with the former Soviet Union.

The recent announcement by the US Defense Secretary that he would recommend extremely modest cuts in Pentagon spending suggested to me that there was a growing realization that the over-extended US military was sapping the economic strength of the US. But the subsequent revelation by the Chinese government of test flights of their own new stealth fighters will undoubtedly give ammunition to the US military-industrial lobby with which to pressure its Congressional supporters to not only reverse the cutbacks but to even increase military spending, even though weapons analysts say that the Chinese fighters are quite inferior to current US counterparts and the Chinese are nowhere near matching the US militarily.

Although I am by no means a military strategist, the timing of the Chinese announcement made me wonder if they are playing a deep game, trying to nudge the US into wasting more money on unproductive weapons systems and military adventures at the expense of broader economic development, all as a means of weakening the US economy. In other words, their military strategy is really an economic one. This is, after all, not an original idea. The US used the arms race and lured the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to force them into military expenditures that they could not sustain. That too was economic warfare, disguised as a military strategy. Mikhail Gorbachev extricated them from that morass and although some Russian nationalists blame him for the break up of the Soviet Union and its fall from superpower status, future generations may well hail him as the person who saved Russia from the total economic disaster that might have ensued from trying to hold on to an over-extended empire.

So while the visible source of power is military and is overt, the real source of power is economic and the way that the oligarchy wields that power is subtle. And because the modern oligarchy is transglobal in nature and not particularly beholden to the welfare of any particular nation state, their interests need not be in synchrony with the needs of the people in any given country. All of us are cogs in a machine, replaceable and expendable.

Membership in the oligarchy is not formal but arrived at after one gives the appropriate cues that one is suitable, similar to the way it is decided to whom to extend an invitation to join the membership of exclusive country clubs. How they work is also similar to the way that a lot of business decisions are made privately on golf courses, in country clubs, and at cocktail parties.

In a must read article published last year, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF and thus someone with impeccable establishment credentials, refers to what has happened in the US as a 'quiet coup' in which the oligarchy, especially the financial sector, has captured the government. He details how an advanced oligarchy operates and how it wields power.

Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world's most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America's position in the world. (My italics)

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. Robert Rubin, once the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, served in Washington as Treasury secretary under Clinton, and later became chairman of Citigroup's executive committee. Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs during the long boom, became Treasury secretary under George W. Bush. John Snow, Paulson's predecessor, left to become chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a large private-equity firm that also counts Dan Quayle among its executives. Alan Greenspan, after leaving the Federal Reserve, became a consultant to Pimco, perhaps the biggest player in international bond markets.

These personal connections were multiplied many times over at the lower levels of the past three presidential administrations, strengthening the ties between Washington and Wall Street. It has become something of a tradition for Goldman Sachs employees to go into public service after they leave the firm. The flow of Goldman alumni—including Jon Corzine, now the governor of New Jersey, along with Rubin and Paulson—not only placed people with Wall Street's worldview in the halls of power; it also helped create an image of Goldman (inside the Beltway, at least) as an institution that was itself almost a form of public service.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to advancing the interests of Goldman Sachs and the related financial sector, the government and media do so reflexively? When you have such a system in place, you don't need a formal hierarchy or structure or agenda to achieve your ends. It happens 'naturally'.

Next: Recent cracks in the oligarchic structure.

January 20, 2011

Constitution-free zone

You are most vulnerable to having your civil liberties (supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the US constitution) ignored when you are entering the country, because the US Customs and Border Patrol (a division of the Department of Homeland Security) seems to have been given extraordinary powers in order to 'protect' the country.

The story of Craig Johnson provides a disturbing picture of what they can do to anyone just for exercising their constitutional rights in a way that the government does not like.

But such things can happen even if you never leave the country, because the DHS takes a very expansive view of what constitutes the 'border'.

The ACLU says a "Constitution-free zone" exists within 100 miles of the US border, where DHS claims the authority to stop, search and detain anyone for any reason. Nearly two-thirds of the US population lives within 100 miles of the border, according to the ACLU, and the border zone encompasses scores of major metropolitan areas and even entire states.

Along the northern border with Canada, international students and scholars have sometimes been detained for weeks because they were not carrying all their documents with them when traveling within the country. Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester, says that "For international visitors who see people boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980."

There will be those who criticize Jensen for hyperbole and say that even now the US is nowhere close to East Germany. They will be right. They will also be right when they point out that other countries routinely require people to carry identification papers with them. In Sri Lanka, for example, people can be randomly stopped at checkpoints and asked to show their identity cards and I always carry my passport with me when traveling in that country.

But the real issue is what kind of nation do we want the US to be? Is being better than Sri Lanka now or East Germany during the cold war the new standard for civil liberties?

For some, it is undoubtedly the best of times

When I read stories like this, my first reaction is to check whether it is April 1 or from the Onion because this level of ostentation cannot possibly be real.

But apparently it is.

Who makes up the oligarchy?

Commenter Jeff, in response to an earlier post, posed the question: Who or what constitutes the oligarchy and when did they come into being? Another commenter to that same post, named simply G, asked: What needs to be done to change things? I'll address the first question here and keep the next for a subsequent post.

There are occasional attempts to portray the oligarchy as some secretive group of unidentified individuals such as the Masons or the Illuminati (or the Inebriati), meeting in secret with passwords and the like. They are not because that is not how things work. The modern transglobal oligarchy consists of figures in the government and private sector working largely in the open. They meet regularly at big public functions where a substantial time is spent in open meetings. But these gatherings also allow for private meetings such as dinners and parties and other social events where the spotlight is off and where a lot of the consensus is built up.

If you look closely, you will see such non-secret informal decision making systems all around you. Whether in your school or religious institutions or community or professional organizations or social circles, there will usually be some smaller grouping of like-minded influential individuals that talk privately to one another often and come to an informal consensus on what to do, and the open meetings are where those informal decisions are formalized, codified, and implemented. The influential people in those groups would be offended to be told that they are acting as a cabal, usurping the rights of the larger group to freely deliberate and make decisions. They see themselves as a positive force, making the organization run more smoothly.

The oligarchy works just like that. Some of the names of these influential groups which meet regularly are familiar: the Trilateral Commission, the Carlyle Group, the Bilderberg Group, the Bohemian Grove, etc. But there are many more. Chrystia Freeland in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite describes the process by which people become part of it.

To grasp the difference between today's plutocrats and the hereditary elite, who (to use John Stuart Mill's memorable phrase) "grow rich in their sleep," one need merely glance at the events that now fill high-end social calendars. The debutante balls and hunts and regattas of yesteryear may not be quite obsolete, but they are headed in that direction. The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit.

The best known of these events is the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, invitation to which marks an aspiring plutocrat's arrival on the international scene. The Bilderberg Group, which meets annually at locations in Europe and North America, is more exclusive still—and more secretive—though it is more focused on geopolitics and less on global business and philanthropy. The Boao Forum for Asia, convened on China's Hainan Island each spring, offers evidence of that nation's growing economic importance and its understanding of the plutocratic culture. Bill Clinton is pushing hard to win his Clinton Global Initiative a regular place on the circuit. The TED conferences (the acronym stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") are an important stop for the digerati; Paul Allen's Sun Valley gathering, for the media moguls; and the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival (co-sponsored by this magazine), for the more policy-minded.

The people who attend these gatherings are well connected to key figures in the business world and have the ear of key policy makers in governments and in fact move freely between the two worlds. In the US, Goldman Sachs, the US Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve Bank can almost be considered to be a single entity because of all the people who smoothly move between them. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2009:

[Michael] Paese went from Chairman [Barney] Frank's office to be the top lobbyist at Goldman, and shortly before that, Goldman dispatched Paese's predecessor, close Tom Daschle associate Mark Patterson, to be Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, himself a protege of former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin and a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the banking industry. That's all part of what Desmond Lachman -- American Enterprise Institute fellow, former chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and top IMF official (no socialist he) -- recently described as "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs."

Meanwhile, the above-linked Huffington Post article which reported on [Senator Dick] Durbin's comments [that "The banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."] also notes Sen. Evan Bayh's previously-reported central role on behalf of the bankers in blocking legislation, hated by the banking industry, to allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages so that families can stay in their homes.

Matt Taibbi piles on the evidence on how this fairly close-knit but informal network of especially well-connected insiders share and use information that is not even available to the general business community, let alone us members of the hoi polloi.

Another extremely interesting detail, which I and others have reported on, involves the fact that all the big banks on Wall Street (including Goldman) and many of hedge funds (including Citadel) had a meeting at the Fed with Ben Bernanke just three days before the Fed announced its plan to subsidize the sale of Bear to JP Morgan Chase. This was on March 11, 2008; the only big bank that was not invited to this meeting was Bear, Stearns. It strains all credulity to imagine that the rescue of Bear was not discussed at that meeting and that none of the players at that meeting made moves based on those conversations.

However there is a mounting pile of evidence suggesting a sort of widespread culture of insider trading in which a few players (specifically the major banks and a few of the biggest and best-connected hedge funds) have milked a seemingly endless stream of exclusive information, not occasionally or opportunistically but as an ongoing commercial strategy. I get about two or three letters a week from people in the finance business complaining that this or that company is openly advance-trading on a) information from the Federal Reserve about things like interest rate changes, or b) info about big client orders in things like commodities, or c) mergers and the like. Certainly there is a great deal to be suspicious of with regard to the behavior of certain companies in advance of major events like the rescue of Bear Stearns, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the AIG bailout, the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, the emergency conversions to bank holding company status of Goldman and Morgan Stanley, and the announcement of major bailout programs like the TALF and the P-PIP.

Anyone who knew in advance how or when these deals were going down could make billions almost without trying, and we know that the heads of many of the major banks were in contact with key federal officials during this entire period.

That's how the oligarchy works.

Next: The nature of oligarchic power

January 19, 2011

Ron Paul schools CNN 'journalist' on WikiLeaks and politics

Tackiness in Arizona

I have written before that people tend to go overboard in their public expressions of grief. Ted Rall thinks that as a nation we are descending into tackiness when it comes dealing with the aftermath of tragic events. He cites the memorial service in Arizona as an example of our tendency to turn even solemn moments into kitsch and suggests some Basic Etiquette Following a Massacre:

(1) When interviewed on television never say that your "heart goes out to the victims and their families." We have heard that hoary chestnut a million too many times. Keep your heart where it belongs, inside your ribcage.

(2) If you are a public official holding a press conference about a school shooting/workplace shooting/terrorist attack, refrain from thanking a long list of local and state officials for their help. This isn't the Oscars. You haven't won anything. You are not going to meet Joan Rivers.

(3) Whether attending a memorial service or actual funeral, leave your hoodies, baggy pants and tanktops at home. No baseball caps. No T-shirts. Don't wear anything with a team logo. Appropriate clothing is formal, black or very dark blue. Men wear suits with ties. Women wear long dresses. Don't got 'em? Stay home. You don't get to be on CNN.

(4) If you know one or more of the victims, ask their surviving relatives whether they would prefer flowers or a donation to a preferred charity. Otherwise simply choose an appropriate charity and make a donation in their name. Do not waste money on flowers and stupid stuffed animals.

(5) Unless the victims include at least one politician, no politician should speak at the service. If there is at least one dead or wounded politician, politicians who do speak should refrain from political rhetoric.

(6) No. Applause. Ever.

Good advice.

When cracks appear in the oligarchic system

Knowledge seeks to be free.

While oligarchic suppression of unauthorized messages can be very thorough, it can never be complete. There will always be people who have a strong urge to know the truth and disseminate it and they will find ways to do so. We have seen in the past that even under tightly-controlled state media systems, an underground press and radio and other low-cost news systems such as pamphlets and wall posters emerge to provide an outlet for those who challenge the system.

In relatively open societies in the US, the challenge for non-oligarchic alternative voices is both harder and easier. It is easier because there is (usually) no overt suppression of other voices by direct censorship. Instead the focus is on marginalizing them, by making them seem extreme so that these voices do not reach a mass audience.

It is harder because the seeming openness of the system makes it harder for ordinary people to see the control of the oligarchy and thus less likely to see the need for alternative views. I am sure that many people in the US think that we are exposed to the full range of news and opinions on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines because we have Fox News and MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the National Review and The Nation.

People tend to be not aware of what they are missing. It takes a great deal of media and political sophistication to be aware of what you are not hearing. A good example is Noam Chomsky. He is well known worldwide as an important political analyst and public intellectual and yet you will never see him anymore in the US mainstream media. To read his work or hear him, you will have to actively seek him out or read alternative media on a regular basis. The same is true for a whole host of people. If you do not appear in the major media venues, you and your views may as well not exist. The non-stop cacophony of voices that surround us in the media serves the purpose of creating that non-awareness. In fact, a good way to become better informed is to not watch TV or read the mainstream press but read only the headlines and the bare bones facts of a story and start just thinking for yourself about what it means.

This is why the internet has been so unsettling for the oligarchy. It lowered the cost of admission to the media club to almost zero and so one has had an explosion of voices, most of whom are free to say what they want. The government does not have to worry about the New York Times or CNN 'going rogue' because their dependence on advertisers and stockholders is sufficient to keep them in check and to even support government efforts to suppress dissenting voices.

The internet's openness was tolerable as long as those new voices were scattered and diffuse and uncoordinated, each commanding just a small audience. But the emergence of outfits like WikiLeaks that are able to command widespread attention has really thrown a wrench into the media propaganda model which is why we should expect to see attempts to 'regulate' the internet to prevent 'irresponsible' (translation: anti-oligarchic) voices form gaining a foothold or by making the cost of business higher by governments using their vast resources to take legal action against smaller entities, thus driving up their costs and putting them out of business.

The WikiLeaks episode has opened a window on the oligarchic structure in the US. The US media likes to portray itself as independent of, and even adversarial to, the government. But when a true challenge to the government emerged, they quickly reverted to their true role of government ally. For example, see how the US media has disowned WikiLeaks and refused to fight or even speak out on their free speech rights, leaving it up to international media to call upon them to protect the First Amendment. It is the US media that fights the idea that WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise just like them and thus deserving of all First Amendment protections.

It is important to understand that this abandonment of WikiLeaks is not due to normal business competition. They are not doing this because of business reasons, because they fear that their subscribers and advertisers will shift away from them to WIkiLeaks because the latter is not that kind of operation and does not present that kind of danger. After all, they are giving away their information free to the mainstream media. Those mainstream media organizations that are distancing themselves from WikiLeaks are clearly doing this for ideological reasons, because they are opposed to what WikiLeaks represents which is a source of information that is outside oligarchic control. They act this way because the US media is part of the oligarchy and thus unconsciously picks up the cues that tell it what to do. The US government does not need to do anything. What better propaganda system is there?

WikiLeaks poses a challenge to the oligarchy because even those journalists that have passed through the filters and risen within the system realize that at some basic level, attempts to shut down WikiLeaks is wrong and this is creating cracks in the system. We need to widen those cracks by driving home the message that this is an important First Amendment issue and that what WikiLeaks does is no different from what Bob Woodward does except that he serves the interests of the oligarchy and WikiLeaks does not.

Next: Who makes up the oligarchy and what can we do about it?

January 18, 2011

What happens after Wiley Coyote gets the Roadrunner

Hypocrisy on internet freedom

Glenn Greenwald lists some of the hypocrisies of the US government when it comes to internet freedoms.

He leads off with the one concerning cyberwarfare. While the US government condemns it, it does nothing when Israel openly boasts about using it against Iran.

So as is the usual pattern, it is never the principle that determines what is right and wrong but who is doing it.

If all the atheists left America…

(via Machines Like Us)

Film review: Good Hair (2009)

Hair is an important issue in the black community, getting way beyond the level of attention that people of other ethnicities give it. I first became aware of this fact a long time ago back in Sri Lanka as a student when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). As a young man of the streets, he adopted the then common practice of 'conking' (straightening his hair) and he vividly describes his first experience. As he became radicalized he decided that this attempt to adopt the hair styling of white people was a symbol of how much black people had internalized their sense of inferiority and subservience and he went back to his natural look. The 1960's was probably the high point of black acceptance of their natural hair. Nowadays it seems like the black community, especially women, has gone back to accepting straight hair and to even see it as desirable. One wonders what Malcolm X would have thought about this development.

I had not paid much attention to this question until I saw the documentary Good Hair (2009) last week. It is produced by comedian Chris Rock who acts as the viewer's guide through the incredibly complex world of hair products and styles aimed at the black community. Rock said his interest in this topic was piqued when one of his very young daughters came to him one day and asked him why she did not have 'good' hair. In searching for an answer, he and his film crew explored the economics, psychology, and sociology of the hair business and its users and it is a fascinating journey.

One way to get 'good' (i.e., straight) hair is to simply straighten it. I was vaguely aware that this involved the use of some chemicals but was stunned to learn that the main chemical in question in the 'relaxers' (as they are called) was sodium hydroxide. I recall almost nothing from my high school chemistry classes but one thing I do remember is being warned about how dangerous this chemical was (it even goes by the name 'caustic soda', which should be warning enough) and to avoid any contact with skin. And here were people regularly and routinely putting it on their heads.

Rock does not shy away from pointing out the dangers, having many of the people he interviews describe the pain of the process. They report that is produces an excruciating burning sensation and that if it is not washed off in time can result in serious scalp burns. If it gets into the eye it can cause blindness. To emphasize the dangers, Rock has a scientist put a few drops of it on a piece of supermarket chicken and shows how it burns a hole through the skin and into the flesh. The scientist also keeps an aluminum soda can in a vat of sodium hydroxide and after a few hours the entire can had dissolved. But despite this, even the parents of children as young as three put this product on their heads.

As I watched this, my mind immediately connected it to the former practice of foot binding in China, in that this was another sign of the extreme burdens imposed on women by the demands of society. A group of young high school graduates said that they felt that a black woman with natural hair simply would not be taken seriously in the business world and would be at a strong disadvantage when it came to being hired at all. It seems bizarre that if a black woman lets her hair grow naturally, she is perceived to be making some sort of militant political statement. This may be a relic of 1960s attitudes.

The other process of getting 'good' hair is known as 'weaving' and this involves braiding the hair tightly onto the scalp, sewing a tight mesh onto the hair, and then sewing hair that has been bundled into thick strands onto it. This process is also quite painful but at least it avoids putting dangerous chemicals on the scalp. The downside is that it is expensive (running into thousands of dollars) because it has to be done by a professional and takes a long time to complete, almost a whole day. Furthermore, once you get a weave, you are quite restricted in your activities. Going to a steam room or swimming, or even getting your hair wet in the rain, are some of the things that are out of the question. You cannot let anyone touch your hair either.

Where does the hair in the weaves come from? It turns out that it comes mostly from India. Apparently when Hindu women make vows to their god, in return for the sought-for favor they have their heads shaved. Hair is a sign of vanity so shaving one's head is a sign of one's devotion, a willingness to sacrifice for god. This shaving happens at the Hindu temples in assembly line fashion with people lining up to get it done, a process known as 'tonsure'. The hair that is cut is then collected by temple officials and sold to hair dealers, and one suspects that some religious leaders may be cynically exploiting the devotion and gullibility of believers to make a tidy profit by encouraging this practice and selling something that they are given for free. India has about a billion people and Rock says that about 85% of them have had their heads shaved at least twice in their lives. That is a lot of hair.

The hair dealers then clean and sort the hair into thick, long clumps (10-14 inches is about the desired length but the longer the better) that are then sealed in plastic packs and shipped off to the US. One Beverly Hills dealer who had a carry-on sized suitcase containing these packs of hair said that he could sell the whole lot in a few hours for about $10,000 to $15,000, which gives you some sense of the scale of the business. Some black women will spend enormous amounts of money on weaves and other hair products, even as they are struggling to pay the rent and utilities and buy food. The irony is that while the majority of customers who buy any kind of hair product are black (they purchase 80% of all hair products sold), the industry is owned and controlled by mostly white or Asian people.

The documentary spends quite a lot of time on the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show held in Atlanta. This is a huge extravaganza where vendors show off their latest products and it culminates in a contest in which four finalists compete to win the award for best stylist. But don't think that this contest consists of people simply styling hair. It is more like performance art with elaborately costumed choreographed dancers on sets with lights and music and involves stunts like cutting hair while hanging upside down or underwater. It is quite an amazing thing to see.

The politics of hair is tricky and Rock has to walk a fine line. While he clearly wants his own daughters to take pride in the hair they were born with and not want to straighten it or add weaves, he avoids being judgmental about the people who have taken the other road. He wanders through the world of hair with a genial attitude and a bemused expression and gives the film a nice light touch.

This is an excellent documentary that I can strongly recommend. To people like me, it opened up a world that was all around me and yet of which I was almost completely unaware.

Here's the trailer:

January 17, 2011

How the US treats its citizens/Glenn Greenwald fundraiser

Glenn Greenwald continues to highlight the plight of US citizen Gulet Mohammed in Kuwait, which I wrote about before.

The Kuwaiti government was willing to release him provided he had a ticket for a direct flight to the US. His family provided it and he was taken to the airport where he was denied boarding with no reasons given, presumably because the government has put him on a no-fly list. If you leave the US, they put you on the list so you cannot return. Since the list is secret, you do not know why you were put on it and how to get off it.

Gulet Mohammed is a Muslim so the government assumes that no one will make a fuss. For others, they use different methods, such as harassing you at the port of entry with lengthy questioning and taking away your computer and any electronic devices each and every time you return, as is happening to WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum

This is what the US government under that great Democratic constitutional scholar Barack Obama does to people it does not like.

Glenn Greenwald is holding a fundraiser to enable him to continue his work. As readers would know from the many, many times I link to him and quote him, I consider him to be one of the most important political commentators and defender of civil liberties in the US right now. If I had to identify one blogger whom I consider to be essential, it is Greenwald.

You can see that he is very uncomfortable asking for this support. Please support him if you can.

China flexes its muscles

On the eve of his visit to the US, Chinese leader Hu Jintao has basically called for the replacement of the US dollar by the Chinese Yuan as the reserve currency, at least initially for China. He also sharply criticized the Fed's quantitative easing policy. I discussed both topics last week.

When this is coupled with China's test flight of its new stealth fighter while US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting them, these are indications by China of its intention to challenge the US as the world's leading power.

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

He hosted the Golden Globes awards show and let fly at all manner of targets. Either British awards shows are much edgier than ours (which is quite possible) or he had the kind of abandon that comes from not wanting to be invited to host again.

See also his final thank yous which likely sealed his fate.

You've gotta love Ricky Gervais.

(via Balloon Juice and Pharyngula)

The media as a model of how a modern oligarchy operates

A well-functioning oligarchic system usually operates smoothly and largely openly and without a hierarchical structure. It achieves its goals by setting up filters that weed out those who do not support its agenda and rarely requires overt intervention to achieve its goals.

I discussed earlier how the major filter was the high cost of entry in the modern media world that meant only rich people or organizations could create a big megaphone for their views. Only someone like Rupert Murdoch, for example, could create a new major network like Fox News. The high cost of entry came into being over a century ago and was a result of market forces and technological advances and the adoption of a business plan that depended largely on advertising for revenues.

Governments were happy to let that process proceed though in the early days some had concerns. It is not well known now until the mid-19th century the US government subsidized the printing and mailing of newspapers in order to enable a wide diversity of voices to be heard. While there are obvious dangers to be faced with government funding, it is possible to construct buffers to insulate the government from having too much influence over editorial content. The BBC and CBC are models that, while flawed, show what can be done. The abandonment of government subsidies to newspapers set in motion a propaganda system that works without any further outside intervention.

A case study of how the media filters work to weed out undesirable elements is the process of embedding mainstream journalists with US troops that was introduced by the US government. Once the news executives agreed to this practice, it further consolidated the links between government and the media. Those journalists who felt that embedding was wrong and undermined their impartiality left the mainstream media and went elsewhere. Only those who did not find it objectionable stayed and they are the ones who report the news and will rise up and become heads of news divisions.

When people like John Burns of the New York Times and Lara Logan of CBS News criticized Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine for publishing the piece that got General Stanley McChrystal fired as head of the Afghanistan war effort, they perfectly symbolized the process at work. What they did by criticizing Hastings was a good career move for them. Whether they were speaking what they really thought or were more cynical and calculating does not matter. If the latter, they will rationalize their actions, create justifications, and internalize the reasons that caused them to act this way and thus become even more dutiful servants of the oligarchy. Meanwhile Hastings, who used to work for Newsweek, left and became an independent journalist because he couldn't stand the role that establishment reporters played within that system.

This example shows how the oligarchy operates in the media. It is not that reporters write stories that are then censored by their bosses who are acting on the orders of politicians, as a crude propaganda model would suggest. It is that the system weeds out the reporters who would write such stories in the first place and only keeps those who would not even consider filing such a story, making overt censorship unnecessary.

It is only under extreme conditions that the commonality of interests between the government and the media breaks down and this is usually due to a split in oligarchic interests. One example in the US was during the later stages in the Vietnam war when the costs of the war became seen as a serious threat to some sections of the US economy and the draft was resulting in the conscription of even people from the ruling classes. This division in the oligarchy allowed much more vocal criticism of the war even in the mainstream media and resulted in the government trying to directly influence them in the form of trying to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers and exerting direct pressure on major newspapers and network news division executives to limit negative coverage of the war. When the hand of the oligarchy becomes visible this way, you know the system has developed cracks.

But the near unanimous support by the US media for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that those earlier cracks have been now sealed because the government did not even need to tell the news organizations to act as cheerleaders. The news executives and reporters by and large agreed with the government's goals because those who might have disagreed had long ago left and gone elsewhere because they just did not 'fit'.

January 15, 2011

Clichés

As someone who reads and writes a lot, I have got attuned to the rhythm of words. When someone uses a cliché, it is as jarring to me as a sudden wrong note in a piece of music.

I personally try to avoid clichés as much as possible and in trying to be alert to them, I started keeping a list of those that I hear that immediately trigger a negative response in me. Here is my list so far:

Speak truth to power
Last time I checked (when used in a sarcastic way)
Think outside the box
When the rubber meets the road
Hit the ground running
A perfect storm
Connect the dots
Light at the end of the tunnel
Start with a clean slate

Anyone else have phrases that grate on the ears (itself a phrase that is on the edge of entering clichedom) that they want to add to this list?

January 14, 2011

The story of life

(via Machines Like Us.)

Huck Finn and the n-word

A new version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be released on February 15, 2011 with all 219 instances of the n-word replaced by 'slave'. The book also changes 'injun' to 'Indian'. These changes were made in order to make it more acceptable for use in schools that have shied away from assigning this American classic to students because of fears that students and parents would find it offensive. Proponents of the change have argued that the book's anti-racist message is largely unaffected by these changes and that what is lost by toning down the language this way is more than compensated for by having more people read this work.

This decision has resurrected two debates. One is whether the 'n-word' is still too explosive to be allowed into the curriculum and the other is whether we should tamper at all with the works of dead authors, especially in cases like this where Twain's use was not casual. He deliberately used the word repeatedly to drive home a point about the nature of the racism of his times.

Comedian Louis C. K. takes issue with the idea that using euphemisms such as 'the n-word' is any less offensive than using the word it replaces. (Language advisory)

On an intellectual level, I agree with him that it seems absurd for us to tiptoe around words like this. They are, after all, just words. As he says, when I use euphemisms like 'the n-word' instead of the word itself, my brain and the listener's brain know exactly what word I am referring to, so I have conveyed that word from my brain to the listener's just as effectively as saying it out loud. The only difference is that my vocal cords have not vibrated to produce the appropriate sound waves in the air that in turn vibrated the listener's eardrums accordingly to hear it. When viewed that way, such circumlocutions do seem silly.

But I still feel highly uncomfortable using the n-word and other words that have a history of being used as slurs, even if I use them purely descriptively or academically and have no bad intent. I think the reason is that anyone who is not a member of the group in question who uses such words has to make sure the context is such that it is clear that the word is not being used as a slur, and that can be tricky. Someone who uses euphemisms like 'the n-word' is essentially achieving two purposes: getting their message across while establishing their bona fides of having no racist motives. They are signaling to everyone around them that they disapprove of racist slurs.

Those who use the n-word without such clear signals run the risk of being perceived as racist, as the recent case of radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger demonstrates. Recall also the white aide to the mayor of Washington DC who in 1999 had to resign after using the word 'niggardly' (which means 'miserly' and has nothing to do with the n-word) even though he used the word perfectly correctly. His listeners had never heard of that word before and took it as a slur, and yet their ignorance cost him his job. People who belong to the group that the slur is aimed at run little risk of being misconstrued if they use it, which may explain why on the Huck Finn issue, the black commentators I have read seem to be the ones more likely to oppose the Bowdlerization of the book and want to retain the original wording.

But in the case of Huck Finn the author is not only dead and thus immune from recrimination, he is widely known as an opponent of racism. So who exactly runs the risk of being harmed by using the original text? Two nervous groups are teachers and school board members who have to approve and select books for the classroom. But why should they be nervous about selecting a widely acknowledged American anti-racist classic just because it contains the n-word? After all, all of us, and especially young people, are routinely exposed to it in popular culture.

It may be that the problem does not lie with having students encounter the word but that discussing the text as well as the common practice in literature classes of reading portions of the text aloud in class will result in students having to actually say the word out loud. This may well be a source of acute discomfort.

I can understand this. I have never said the n-word out loud in my life because of that same sense of discomfort. I have seen the word in print and heard it spoken often enough that it has ceased to shock me but the thought of saying (or even writing) it makes me uncomfortable. When it comes to the n-word, I can take it but can't dish it out.

If a hardened old cynic like me feels that way, I can imagine that idealistic young people will recoil even more strongly at that prospect of saying and writing it. I suspect that this is why the original text is not used in schools, to spare students such discomfort.

On The Daily Show Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore had their usual droll and perceptive exchange on what underlies the controversy. (Language advisory)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

January 13, 2011

The pernicious influence of Rupert Murdoch

Although the problems with the media that I have described are largely structural, it is possible to identify particularly insidious influences that are epitomize its decline and Rupert Murdoch is the undoubted leader.

In this 1994 clip British television writer Dennis Potter describes how Murdoch played a large role is destroying the quality of British media, a process that he is continuing in the US.

(Thanks to Harry Kroto.)

Noam Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent

There is a documentary of Manufacturing Consent (the book that I talked about in the previous post) that you can see online for free, although the image quality is not great. Although it is two hours and forty-five minutes long, it is entertaining and provides an excellent overview of the subject and of Chomsky.

A model for how the oligarchy works

To understand who constitutes the new national and transglobal oligarchies and how they work, it is helpful to examine a subsystem of the oligarchy that has been studied extensively and provides a good model or template for understanding it. One fact that quickly emerges is that the best propaganda systems are those that operate seemingly transparently.

Those countries that have tightly controlled state media have a much less effective propaganda system than countries like the US. Not only are people in those countries aware that the media is a propaganda organ, which makes them skeptical of what it says, there is always the danger that somebody in the media is going to blurt out things that contradict the party line.

It is much more effective to have a structure in which the people in the media share common values with the ruling classes so that they sincerely spout the desired message. This is far more effective than forcing them to toe the party line against their will because the people in the media are truly saying what they think and thus the public thinks that they are being told the truth. And they would be correct in a narrow sense. You will almost never find outright lying by mainstream US journalists. What the media does is three things: they will not cover certain kinds of stories, the stories they do cover will be viewed through a particular prism that is advantageous to establishment interests, and the range of analyses will be restricted to a narrow spectrum. Everything that falls within these limits will be called 'moderate', 'centrist', 'reasonable', 'mainstream', and other favorable labels and gain easy access to media outlets to repeatedly propound their message while anything outside will be labeled 'radical', 'extreme' and be rarely heard.

How is this remarkable consensus achieved? By creating a media structure that has filters built into it that, as you rise in the ranks, steadily weed out those whose values and ideology do not conform. In the US this is achieved by raising the cost of admission to the media world. In the beginning days of newspapers and radio, there was a wide diversity of voices because it did not cost that much to start up a new operation. Reporters were often from working class backgrounds with no college degree who started at the very bottom and worked their way up as they learned the their craft.

Nowadays no one who is not a wealthy person can start a newspaper or radio or TV station. Furthermore, they depend on advertising for a large chunk of their revenues. As a result of the ownership and revenue filters, they need to target businesses and the maximum number of individuals who will buy those goods, which means skewing coverage that is favorable to business and towards the more affluent. Furthermore, journalism has become a profession that requires a college degree (though there are exceptions), which means that a narrower spectrum of people (mostly from the middle and professional classes) with more establishment views enter the profession.

As a result of these structural constraints, a whole set of unseen filters get put into place and only certain types of reporters will pass through them. Those who are the best at internalizing those values are the ones who 'fit' the media and will pass through the filters and rise up the ranks to become editors and opinion makers. And the views they express will almost always be sincere ones. They would be shocked to be told that they are part of a propaganda system. They will insist, quite rightly, that no one orders them to say or write anything.

The system at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News where top executives send daily memos to their news reporters telling them what to cover and how to cover it (as revealed in Robert Greenwald's documentary Outfoxed) is quite unusual in its crudeness. This series of Doonesbury cartoon strips about the documentary is amusing. But holding up Fox News as an example of shoddy journalism (which is absolutely true) implies that the non-Murdoch media are not part of the propaganda system when in fact they are but do not need to be so crude.

The members of the mainstream media do not meet in secret and plot. They have no need to. They meet in public, at professional and social gatherings and conferences and the like, to share ideas and strategies. And since they all pretty much share the same values and goals, they arrive at conclusions that advance the interests of the US oligarchy without having to be explicitly told to do so by their oligarchic bosses.

What I have described is just a sketch of the US media system. For a much more comprehensive treatment of how the media in the US works as an effective propaganda system because of the various filters incorporated within it, read Manufacturing Consent, the classic analysis of the US media by Noam Chomsky and Edward R. Herman, and The Problem of the Media by Robert W. McChesney.

The oligarchy is created and functions pretty much the same way, as will be discussed later.

January 12, 2011

Chaotic and dangerous situations

Arizona is a state that allows people to carry guns. Joe Zamudio carries one and was in a store when he heard the shooting and he came out with his gun to see if he could help. What happened then shows that when a gun carrier comes across a confused and fast-moving situations like the shootings last weekend, if they are not very careful they could make matters a lot worse, either by misjudging who is responsible for what and shooting the wrong person or being mistaken as the gunman by police.

This episode suggests that people who carry guns should get at least some of the kind of training that police officers get where you learn caution and never to fire at someone unless you are sure and get some experience in being put into chaotic situations.

Killing the dream

As a follow up to the previous post, the great film O Lucky Man (1975) is the story of Mick Travis, a Candide-like character played by Malcolm McDowell, poor but ambitious, who wants to get ahead and is willing to do anything that he thinks capitalism requires of him but is manipulated by rich people who take advantage of his naivete to serve their own ends.

The film has a wonderfully cynical sound track by Alan Price, especially this song Look Over Your Shoulder.

If you didn't follow it, the last verse goes:

Hope springs eternal in a young man’s breast
And he dreams of a better life ahead
Without that dream you are nothing, nothing, nothing
You’ve got to find out for yourself that dream is dead.

The warning signs of trouble ahead

If we look at the situation globally, we see two trends, one good and one bad. The good one is that the gap in average incomes between people in the developed world and the developing world is closing. But while inequalities between nations (as measured by statistics on averages) is decreasing, inequalities within nations are worsening, as income and wealth disparities get larger. As a result, we now have two worlds emerging that, unlike the old divisions of rich and poor nations, now consist of rich and poor groupings that transcend nations. As Chrystia Freeland says in an article in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite of the new oligarchy:

Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.

No good can come from this trend of a rapidly widening gap between a tiny rich coterie and the ever-increasing numbers of the poor. It is too uncomfortably reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary France and is destined to self-destruct.

Within the US, the collapse of the US empire will not be because of any external threat. Its military is too powerful to be overcome. It will collapse from within for economic reasons, as it becomes bloated, bankrupt, arrogant, over-extended, and hubristic, thinking that its military might alone is sufficient to ensure its continued dominance over other countries. As with past empires, people will not realize until the very moment of collapse how bad things are, and then look back and marvel as to how they could have missed all the screaming warning signs.

The structural warning signs are already there: rapidly rising inequalities in income and wealth, declining services and quality of life, lower standards of living for the many, endemic large budget deficits, a national debt that is approaching the size of the GDP, and a political class that has become so subservient to the oligarchy that it will not address the problems head on but blusters over trivialities.

A serious warning sign is when other nations become wary of the US dollar serving as the reserve currency. That feature has enabled the US Federal Reserve to print money (euphemistically called 'quantitative easing') to paper over its chronic deficits and try and boost the US economy by putting more money in circulation, even though this has a negative impact on the economies of the rest of the world because it essentially devalues the dollar and thus cheapens the value of their dollar reserves. This practice has allowed the US to live well beyond its means for many years now.

But there are limits to how long this can go on. Other countries are starting to seek alternatives to the dollar. Paul Craig Roberts says that here have been rumblings already on this front and that "Russia and China have concluded an agreement to abandon the use of the US dollar in their bilateral trade and to use their own currencies in its place". Troubles with the euro have kept the threat of that currency becoming the reserve temporarily at bay. Meanwhile, China, India, and France are calling for a new international monetary system in which the dollar is no longer the sole reserve currency.

A symbolic warning sign that things are bad is the increasing frequency of grandiose rhetoric making claims to national greatness. Witness this recent effusion from Rich Lowry in the National Review: "Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion." It is a truism that the truly great in any field never have to boast about it because they simply take it for granted. It is only those who are insecure who do so.

Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of hope and promises of change and a new direction that we now know he had no intention of fulfilling. He used hope as a lure to delude people the same way that religions use hope of a wonderful afterlife to get them to accept terrible conditions here and now. We need to kill that sense of hope. This sounds terrible but it is only when we lose our illusions about the current state of affairs in the US that we can begin to create a better society. It is only when we see the reality, that the US does not have two parties with different visions but is a one party oligarchic state that is pursuing policies that benefit a few but are causing the nation as a whole to tumble into disaster, that we can set about creating the kind of movement that will unite the base of both parties, including even the tea partiers, and can see clearly what the real problems are and what needs to be done.

Next: Who makes up the oligarchy and what needs to be done?

January 11, 2011

Why can't we go in a straight line?

A Mystery: Why Can't We Walk Straight? from NPR on Vimeo.

(via onegoodmove)

The modern transnational oligarchy

When it comes to politics, my preference is to think long-term and to use short-term trends simply as indicators of what the long-term future is going to be like. So I have little patience with much of news 'analysis' that is primarily tactical, following the fortunes of individual elections and individual candidates, unless I think those races signify some major trend.

Given my gloom about the current direction that the US is taking, it may surprise some readers that I am by nature an optimist and I can often find silver linings in the darkest clouds. But in the case of the US, the only silver linings that I see are in the long term. In the short term, I fear that things are going to become very bad.

The reasons for my gloomy outlook are because of the systemic causes of the problems that currently beset the US. As long as there is no mass recognition of the deep causes of problems, we are doomed to pursue ineffective policies. The US is at present mired in two publicly acknowledged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two secret wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and two potential wars in Iran and Somalia. These are all part of a futile 'war on terror' that it can never win by force of arms but which is a huge drain on the treasury. Couple this with an oligarchy that seems to have lost all sense of restraint and seems hell-bent on looting the public treasury for its own short-term benefit with little or no concern for the long-term consequences for the nation as a whole, and you have a prescription for major trouble ahead.

Even conservative Francis Fukuyama writes that we now have a plutocracy in the US.

We mean not just rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. We mean, in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. As the introductory essay to this issue shows, this influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions. Of these, the second has perhaps the deepest historical legacy.

Countries are almost always run by a ruling class largely for the benefit of that ruling class, so what Fukuyama is saying is not new. What is new is that larger segments of even the conservative intelligentsia are coming around to that realization that even within such a system, what creates some semblance of national unity and prevents deep social unrest is the idea of noblesse oblige, the sense among the ruling class that they have at least some obligation to serve the needs of society as a whole in addition to enriching themselves. At the very least this was a form of self-interest, to create a positive image of themselves to avoid things becoming so bad as to create a revolutionary situation. As a result of this sensibility, one saw investment in public works and amenities (roads, rail, parks, libraries, schools, etc.) and the rise of the welfare state within capitalism. In days gone by one even saw members of the ruling class actually volunteer to fight in their country's wars, an idea that would seem quaint to the members of the current oligarchy.

Those days are gone. The concept of noblesse oblige is completely foreign to the present oligarchy in the US. They would find laughable the idea of any personal sacrifice for the common good or that the well being of the nation requires at least some checks on their own wealth accumulation. We are now past the stage of the ordinary capitalism that unleashed enormous productive capacities and growth and have entered an era of rapacious and predatory capitalism, where unchecked greed reigns supreme, and where the wealthy are beginning to compete amongst each other to see how much and how quickly they can enrich themselves at the expense of the public good.

Felix Salmon points to an article by Chrystia Freeland in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic titled The Rise of the New Global Elite on how the present oligarchy is quite different from the oligarchies of the past and views the middle classes with contempt. They see themselves as having succeeded purely on their merit and entirely deserving of their huge wealth and see no obligation to society as a whole.

What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.

The idea that the poor are poor through their own fault and are thus 'undeserving' of any consideration and quite expendable is a very old idea. What is changing is that the line of demarcation has shifted upwards quite suddenly so that the group that constitutes the lower middle class and even the middle class, once considered the bedrock workers on which the economy was built, now find themselves also being considered expendable because their jobs can easily be outsourced to other countries or replaced by machines or by squeezing other workers to do more. This is why we can now have a 'jobless recovery', whereby the stock market and profits are soaring while unemployment remains high.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story The Rich Boy (1926), "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me", a theme he had elaborated on in his novel The Great Gatsby that was published in the same year. What we see is that the very rich now are not just different from you and me, they are even different from the rich of the past. And not in a good way.

Next: Warning signs of trouble ahead.

January 10, 2011

Trailers before films

I like to watch film trailers. They usually serve the intended purpose, which is to tell me whether I want to see the film or not.

What I do not understand is when I borrow a DVD of a film and they show the trailer of the very same film before the film begins. What is the point? Presumably film makers make trailers to persuade people to watch the film. Surely if I have gone to the trouble of borrowing the film, inserted it into the player, and sat back in my chair, it is pretty clear that I have committed myself to watching it. I don't need any more persuading.

This practice is especially senseless with modern trailers that seem to practically give away the entire plot. If you see it a long time before the actual film, you likely forget all but a few moments and so no harm is done. But watching a trailer just before seeing the film is bound to ruin the experience.

Just last weekend, it was even worse. I sat down to watch the film The Man Who Would be King (1975) and not only did they start with the trailer, they even had a "The making of…" type documentary before the film, with interviews with the stars and director discussing the characters and script, showing how the scenes were set up, and so on. I like such documentaries in general but only after I have seen a film. Seeing it before would ruin the suspension of belief needed to enjoy films.

I of course immediately skip past the trailer and documentaries as I am sure almost everyone else must be doing. So why do some film companies do this? Does anyone have any ideas as to what could be the reasoning behind such a practice?

Over-reaction?

While the killing spree in Arizona was appalling, why has Congress decided to postpone all legislative action that had been scheduled for this entire week? This event took place in Arizona, not in the Capitol building, so it is not as if there had been a breach in building security that needed to be fixed.

This kind of mass killing occurs unfortunately all too often in work and educational environments in the US and yet people in the very places where the shootings occur usually get back to work the next day, except for the crime scene itself. Why is Congress any different?

The Republican Party's con game

Last Friday, I said that the problem with the Democratic Party's base is that they are too willing to accept at face value the statements of their party leaders and too quick to be satisfied with crumbs thrown their way in the form of victories on social or symbolic issues.

What is going on with the Republicans is more interesting than what is going on with the Democrats because the Republican base has become more feisty and less trusting of their own leadership and are showing signs of developing a healthy cynicism. The tea party rebellion was the result of the Republican Party faithful waking up to the fact that their own leadership was also manipulating them to advance an agenda that was not in their own interests. For a long time, the Republican Party leadership has managed to fool their followers in the same way that the Democrats do but their followers seem to have wised up earlier.

The slow but steady decline of the white middle class, the mass base of the Republican Party, who are losing jobs and seeing their lifestyle lowered, has been causing simmering discontent for some time. There seems to be an almost palpable feeling that the country is in a state of decline and when that happens people tend to want to assign blame. The tea party members have a vague sense that the outsourcing of jobs and the financial shenanigans of Wall Street are the cause of their plight, as can be seen from their hostility to the bailouts and their 'buy American' form of patriotism. But because of their ignorance and naivete about politics and how things actually work, they have been suckered into thinking that the reason that things are this way is due to 'big government' and that cutting taxes for everyone will shrink the government and thus somehow miraculously get them out of their plight.

The tea partiers that demand less government do not realize that their anger is being used to target those agencies of government that keep rampant corporate greed in check and that the more those agencies are constrained and eliminated, the more we will be at the mercy of big business interests. The goal of big business is to eliminate or undermine all those government agencies whose purpose serve as watchdogs for the public but which put a crimp on their unfettered search for ever-increasing for profits. Those agencies like the IRS, SEC, OSHA, FDA, BLM, and EPA are meant to balance the needs of the corporate sector with the welfare of individual citizens who lack the money and other resources to fight on their own.

While the base of the Democratic Party tends to make excuses for their leadership's fecklessness, the base of the Republican Party at least has the gumption to take to the streets and make their leadership sit up and take notice. It is true that the tea party is largely white, well-to-do, older, and has in its ranks racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and outright nutcases. Its ranks contain people who are so out of touch with reality that they seriously think that Obama is a Kenyan and/or Muslim and/or Communist who has a secret agenda to destroy the country by imposing a socialist dictatorship mixed in with Sharia law or that the health care reform package that the Democrats passed is a government takeover of the system.

The tea party is also shackled by anti-intellectual pride and complacent ignorance that has enabled obvious grifters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to turn their anger away from the true causes of their decline (which is the oligarchy seeking an ever-increasing share of wealth) into resentment against minorities and the poor and foreigners, coupled with hot-button social issues like abortion and gays, all wrapped into a single anti-government and anti-tax package.

The Republican leadership clearly is aware of this unrest and is nervous. So far, the they have managed to ride that tiger but its position is precarious. While they were able to win significant legislative victories in 2010 by pandering to their base and making unrealistic promises, we see them now warily wondering how to appease their followers to distract them from the fact that those promises cannot and will not be kept. They made a big issue out of the budget deficit and the national debt and promised to bring both down, when in reality their obligations to the oligarchy will increase both. They are walking a knife-edge and they know it. In order to disguise their inevitable sell-out, we can expect to see another major effort to gin up major controversies on social issues in order to distract their followers.

Whether the Republican Party base will wise up as to what is really going on and realize that the groups they are currently being made to hate and attack as the cause of the nation's problems (minorities, unions, the unemployed, the poor) are in the same boat as them and shift their focus to attacking the oligarchy or whether they will continue to be sidetracked by false issues and thus eventually wither away into sputtering incoherence remains to be seen.

January 09, 2011

God will not protect you from measles but vaccination will

Following up on the post about the fraudulent study about how the MMR vaccine may cause autism, I came across this sad report of 70 children dying of measles in Zimbabwe. They were part of a religious community that shunned vaccines because "it contradicts their belief in supernatural powers."

The story illustrates what a deadly threat measles is, and how its threat escalates rapidly as the proportion of unvaccinated people in a population increases.

Arizona shooting

As the story of the tragic events in Arizona unfold, it is good to bear in mind that the immediate reports of events like this are often confused and contradictory and full of uniformed and misleading speculation about what actually happened and who did what and why.

It is best to suspend judgement for at least a few days until it becomes clear what the facts of the case are, based on the statements of people who are usually reliable sources (hospitals, local police officers, actual witnesses of events).

Our banking overlords get a rare setback

Recall all the speculation in housing that resulted in the crash that is currently causing large numbers of people to be foreclosed upon? That was due to mortgages being bundled together into huge slabs, sliced into small packages that were called SIVs (Structured or Special Investment Vehicles) and then traded like stock. (I did a series of posts explaining this debacle back in 2008 and the specific ones that dealt with this topic are #7 and #8.)

The result of this practice was that ownership of mortgages was diversified and it became unclear as to who the actual owner of any given property was, which enabled them to deny any responsibility for the upkeep of abandoned property as required by local ordinances. The blight on neighborhoods caused by this evasiveness was so bad that a Cleveland housing court judge got fed up and started levying penalties on whichever entity he could hold responsible.

But when it comes to selling off properties, the banks are not shy of claiming ownership. It turns out that banks, the very organizations that were instrumental in the crash, are now foreclosing on, and selling off, people's property without proper documentation showing that they own the property. They decided they could just manufacture documents to show ownership.

Last fall, the banking industry's foreclosure machine came under intense scrutiny with revelations that low-level employees called "robo signers" powered through hundreds of foreclosure affidavits a day without verifying a single sentence. At the time, analysts warned that the banks' allegedly fraudulent document procedures could imperil their ability to prove that they owned the mortgages.

The Massachusetts State Supreme Court on Friday upheld a housing court judge's ruling in that state that ordered a halt to two foreclosures unless the banks can properly documented their ownership. The history of that case can be read here.

To you and me, this would seem a perfectly reasonable requirement: you should not be able to sell something that you cannot prove that you own. But we live in a country in which banks have got used to thinking that normal rules don't apply to them and these perfectly reasonable court rulings are being greeted with shock by the banking sector.

If this ruling is repeated in other states I wonder how long will it be before the banks demand of the Congressional and presidential clients that they pass special measures exempting them from the tedious business of carefully maintaining records that prove ownership?

January 08, 2011

The tide goes in, the tide goes out, so god exists

Watch the expression on the face of David Silverman (of the American Atheists) when Bill O'Reilly gives his argument for god's existence.

Steven Colbert shows that O'Reilly seems to be very fond of this argument.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson oversimplifies his explanation for the tides by suggesting that it is entirely due to the moon's gravitational pull that changes direction as the Earth rotates. That would explain only one ebb and flow a day. The effects of both the Sun and the moon are required to create the two daily tides.

Does O'Reilly really not know that we understand tides so well and that it is not an inexplicable mystery that requires god? Or is he, like some religious people, simply going through the motions of trying to find things to buttress a belief that he suspects deep down is insupportable, because is too scared to go against prevailing orthodoxy?

Pointless dedication

Take a look at this passage below and see if you notice anything unusual about it.

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary "fill-ins" as "romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road." Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds ; robins carolling at twilight, nor any "warm glow of lamplight" from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn out notion that "a child don't know anything."

Not notice anything, other than the author's love affair with quotation marks? That is not a surprise because it is quite subtle. What is noteworthy is that passage does not contain the letter 'E' even though in normal English that letter is the most frequently used and occurs roughly 13% of the time. The above paragraph is taken from the 267-page 1939 novel Gadsby written by Ernest Vincent Wright where he avoided that letter entirely.

Such letter avoidance is not that unusual apparently. John R. Pierce in his book An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals, and Noise (1980, p. 48) gives other examples.

Gottlob Burmann, a German poet who lived from 1737 to 1805, wrote 130 poems, including a total of 20,000 words, without once its using the letter R. Further, during the last seventeen years of his or life, Burmann even omitted the letter from his daily conversation.

In each of five stories published by Alonso Alcala y Herrera in Lisbon in 1641 a different vowel was suppressed. Francisco Navarrete y Ribera (1659), Fernando Jacinto de Zurita y Haro (1654), and Manuel Lorenzo de Lizarazu y Berbuizana (1654) provided other examples.

When I read about such people, I have a reaction that wavers between admiration at the dedication and the single-mindedness that such acts require, and bemusement at the sheer pointlessness of it all. Since we knew in advance, in principle, that what they did could be done, there seems to be no reason to do these kinds of things other than to show that there exists someone somewhere willing to spend the time and effort to do it. The Guinness Book of Records seems to consist of a lot of items like this, making it a repository of human pointless dedication.

January 07, 2011

John McCain in the The Daily Show's crosshairs

This nasty man richly deserves all the harsh treatment that he receives.

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Barack Obama's fans

Thanks to commenter Henry for the link to this video that captures a lot of what I have been saying.

Government and media sleight-of-hand

Blog reader Mark made a good catch and sent me a link to this Reuters news report about a CIA official arrested for passing secrets to a New York Times reporter. The report says:

The arrest marked the latest case brought by the Obama administration charging current or former U.S. officials with leaking classified information to the news media.

It also has been investigating the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, for leaking hundreds of classified U.S. diplomatic cables that have embarrassed the White House.

Mark noticed the sleight-of-hand by the government and the Reuters reporter, observing that, "Neither the Times or the reporters are being prosecuted for leaking information. Then it compares Julian Assange to the leakers and why the government is seeking him. But they are so wrong. Julian is not the leaker he is the equivalent to the reporter or the Times."

Exactly.

The Democratic Party's con game

My social circle tends to be people who call themselves liberal and vote Democratic. Whenever we discuss politics, I am always struck by how their sources of information are restricted to the mainstream media and how much they reflect the thinking of the commentators in them. Their idea of a 'liberal' is someone like Thomas Friedman and someone on the 'far left' is Keith Olberman. They will proudly say that they subscribe to the New York Times and will express contempt for Fox News and its stable of propagandists. These are taken as signs of their impeccable liberal credentials,

Their view of the world is drearily predictable. According to them, Obama and the Democrats would really, really like to advance a progressive agenda but are constantly being thwarted by the mean old Republicans. It never seems to strike them to ask why it is that when Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress with hefty majorities (as was the case from 2008-2010), they seem incapable of advancing their ostensibly progressive agenda but the Republicans with slim or no majorities (as was the case from 2000-2008) seem to so easily get their way to advance the interests of the oligarchy. They do not seem to wonder why it is the Democrats who are constantly looking for compromises with Republicans in their desire for 'bipartisanship' and, if asked, will say that this is because the Democrats are not doctrinaire like the Republicans.

These people simply cannot wrap their minds around the idea that we have a one party oligarchic state, and that the Democrats and Republicans are two factions of that party that differ on mostly social issues over which they can 'fight' heatedly in order to provide political theater and thus distract us from the fact that the two parties are one when it comes to substantive financial issues. Thus they cannot see that the reason that Democrats are more eager to compromise with the Republicans is because the Republicans more openly support policies that benefit the oligarchy while the Democrats only secretly support them. Compromising allows the Democrats to reward their oligarchic overlords while claiming to their base that they were forced to do so. Over time, the Democrats have become very good at playing this role.

When I suggest to such people that the reality is different and that the Democratic Party serves the same oligarchic interests as the Republicans, they get disconcerted and are incredulous. While they have no difficulty believing that the Republican Party is in the pockets of big business, when you suggest that the Democratic Party is also beholden to the same interests, they accuse you of spouting conspiracy theories. It does not seem to strike them that it would be madness for big business to take the risk of having the public vote into power a party that is hostile to their interests, when they have the money to buy both party's leaderships so that whoever wins elections, their interests are protected. If I were the head of Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase or some similar institution, I most certainly would make sure that both parties were bought off so that my interests were protected whoever wins. As Russell Mokhiber says, if you want to see genuine competition between two sides, you shouldn't follow party politics, you should follow sports.

The word 'oligarchy' is not used in such genteel circles because it suggests a single ruling class and that undermines the world they live in. These people are always living in hope that someday the Democratic Party will elect a president who is a true progressive and a fighter for those values that the Congress will enact policies that will benefit ordinary people other than the wealthy. The fact that they believed this of Obama and that they elected big majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008 and that the oligarchy still got whatever they wanted (such as making sure that the health care 'reform' package served their own needs, continuing the expensive but profitable (for them) 'war on terror', getting massive tax breaks for the rich, and laying the groundwork for gutting social security) disappoints them but they find excuses for the Democrats, saying that they were forced into making these concessions. It is astonishing to me how many of them still think that Obama represents the interests of ordinary people despite the evidence to the contrary that he himself has provided in his first two years of office.

Obama's new chief of staff will be William Daley who, for the last seven years has been a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following Obama's political trajectory and his close association with Wall Street firms (especially Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase) that began immediately after he became a US senator, as was carefully documented by Ken Silverstein in Harper's in 2006. (The article is not online, unfortunately, but I have discussed it here.)

It is becoming clear that Obama has no intention of raising taxes on the wealthy as a means of reducing the deficit and the debt. Instead he will use the deficit as an excuse to further assault the middle class and poor by cutting social security and other social welfare programs. I predict that his tax reform proposals will make the tax code even more regressive. His defense will be that it has to be done and if he doesn't do it, the Republicans will be worse.

The problem with the Democratic Party's base is that they are too willing to accept at face value the statements of their party leaders and too quick to be satisfied with small victories on relatively minor issues. See how much they are trumpeting the 'success' of the lame-duck session with its repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the passage of the Zadroga health care legislation as major victories, and overlooking the massive sell-out to the wealthy by the Democrats on the tax deal. While those victories were undoubtedly good and worthwhile, they were essentially bribes paid by the Democratic Party leadership to their base to appease them over the tax giveaway.

I wonder how far Obama and the Democrats can stick a knife into the backs of their supporters before the latter realize that the party leadership is not actually representing their interests. If the members of my social circle are any indication, they have still some way to go because support for Obama is still strong. But this may be because the small population of generally well-to-do people is one for which the trickle-down theory of economics actually works, because the well-to-do actually do benefit from things like tax cuts for the rich because their tax rates also go down as a consequence. The long-term bad effects of these policies for society or the generally poor current economic conditions haven't really affected this group yet, in the way it has those further down the socio-economic ladder.

Next: The Republican Party's con game.

January 06, 2011

How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed

Some of you may be aware that many parents are not giving their children the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine out of fears that it may cause autism. These fears were generated by a paper published in 1998 by the British medical journal Lancet by Andrew Wakefield and others suggesting such a link. The findings were challenged but the journal only withdrew the paper in 2010.

The British Medical Journal has now published a detailed investigation and concludes that all of the twelve original cases reported had had their data misreported or altered in order to make the link.

The Lancet paper was a case series of 12 child patients; it reported a proposed "new syndrome" of enterocolitis and regressive autism and associated this with MMR as an "apparent precipitating event." But in fact:

  • Three of nine children reported with regressive autism did not have autism diagnosed at all. Only one child clearly had regressive autism

  • Despite the paper claiming that all 12 children were "previously normal," five had documented pre-existing developmental concerns

  • Some children were reported to have experienced first behavioural symptoms within days of MMR, but the records documented these as starting some months after vaccination

  • In nine cases, unremarkable colonic histopathology results—noting no or minimal fluctuations in inflammatory cell populations—were changed after a medical school "research review" to "non-specific colitis"

  • The parents of eight children were reported as blaming MMR, but 11 families made this allegation at the hospital. The exclusion of three allegations—all giving times to onset of problems in months—helped to create the appearance of a 14 day temporal link

  • Patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation

None of the families of the children were aware that Wakefield was involved in a lawsuit that would benefit from showing the link he purportedly discovered..

As the editors of the BMJ say:

Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children's cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.

Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession. Although vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have recovered slightly from their 80% low in 2003 they are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents’ trust in the vaccine is ongoing.

What Wakefield set in motion was a monstrous crime, playing on the great fear of parents that some well-meaning action on their part may cause harm to their children and for which they will never forgive themselves. Fortunately for me, my own children were vaccinated well before this scare arose otherwise I too would have agonized over what to do.

Due to so many not giving their children the vaccines because of these fears, all children have been put at risk, while many have suffered from each of these diseases and some have died. Despite this new report, it will be hard to convince die-hard vaccine skeptics to change their minds.

(via Balloon-Juice)

Your government may not protect you

If you, as a US citizen traveling abroad perfectly legally, are suddenly taken into custody by a foreign government and tortured, wouldn't you expect your government to express outrage and take steps to protect you? You would be wrong, if that government is a client state of the US.

Glenn Greenwald tells us of the appalling treatment meted out to18-year old Gulet Mohammed by Kuwait and the limbo he has been placed in.

This silence implies that either the Kuwaiti government is acting on orders of the US or that Obama and Clinton only care if US citizens are detained by countries like North Korea and Iran, even though the treatment of captives by those governments does not come even close to the levels of barbarity that Kuwait has demonstrated with Mohammed.

Blasphemy

Laws against blasphemy constitute the ultimate concession by religious people that their god does not exist. I think religious leaders secretly realize that the non-existence of god is such an obvious fact that allowing people to publicly say so might cause the whole religious house of cards to topple, and so they have to resort to legal measures to prevent people from pointing out the absurdity of their beliefs.

But blasphemy laws are not only stupid, they are evil. We currently have the terrible situation of a Pakistani Christian woman who is under a death sentence for blasphemy and two days ago a Pakistan provincial governor was shot to death by his own bodyguard because the governor had opposed this blasphemy law. What is particularly disgusting is that mainstream religious organizations in Pakistan are lauding the murder and militant clerics in Pakistan have been protesting any changes to this barbaric law.

The Islamic countries seem to be the worst perpetrators of this blasphemy evil. What is worse is that they are trying to gain international acceptance for their medieval ideas, using the United Nations as a vehicle. In November 2010, the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee of the 192-member General Assembly voted 76-64 (42 abstentions) in favor of a resolution condemning the 'vilification of religion'. While this is a smaller margin than last year (81 to 55 with 43 abstentions) and is non-binding, it is still disturbing that so many countries would support it.

How the case against Julian Assange came about

One of the big political questions this year is whether the US government will be able to get their hands on Julius Assange. The brutal treatment given to Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the leaked US material, is a likely template for the way Assange will also be treated should he fall into US government hands. These actions by the US government are meant to frighten and thus deter any future potential unauthorized leakers. What they want is to return to the system whereby only selected people in government get to leak secrets to selected reporters to advance their own agendas.

There has been considerable discussion of whether Assange is being framed by the Swedish authorities at the request of the US. I don't know if that is the case but here is some background information to help people judge for themselves as more details emerge. What becomes clear is that there are very close relationships among the key people involved.

First, some political background. Although Sweden is theoretically a neutral country that is not part of any military alliance, in practice its government acts like it is a de facto member of NATO, by actions such as contributing troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which causes some concern among its population. Mona Sahlin, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), campaigned during the 2010 general election on a platform of withdrawing Swedish troops from Afghanistan, starting in 2011 and completing it by 2013. But a secret cable released by WikiLeaks finds her privately telling the US government that, despite her public statements her party "supports Sweden's continued mission in Afghanistan". Her party then voted after the election to extend the troops' presence. The WikiLeaks release of the cable is undoubtedly embarrassing for Sahlin and the SDP, showing how they lied to their own supporters in order to serve the US. This background is significant because all though this secret cable was released after the events involving Assange and the two women, it shows that the people behind the Swedish campaign against Assange are all involved at high levels of the SDP and collude with the US government.

The basic chronology of the events surrounding Assange and the two women who made allegations against him is as follows. (One of Assange's lawyers gives his side of the story here.)

  1. On the afternoon of Friday, August 20, the two women AA and SW (now both apparently in hiding) make a statement at a police station at 2:00pm. It is not clear if they made a formal complaint of rape or were seeking advice. Their statement is rapidly sent up the chain to the prosecutor on duty who immediately decides it is rape and issues a warrant for Assange to be seized for questioning. Strangely, someone immediately sends a text message to this effect to a reporter at the tabloid newspaper Expressen. It is not normal practice to alert the media like this. The newspaper contacts the prosecutor's office for confirmation and gets it, again not normal practice. The news is broadcast the next day on the front pages.

  2. The chief Stockholm prosecutor Eva Finné reviewed the charges and dismissed them the following day saying that there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.

  3. AA then contacts criminal defense attorney Claes Borgström the very next day, on Sunday 22 August.

Why would an alleged victim of a crime consult a criminal defense attorney? One reason could be personal: AA and Borgstrom are both active in SDP politics and are friends. Another possibility is that filing a false charge is a criminal offense in Sweden and AA may have felt that the quick dismissal of her charges might leave her open to prosecution.

What is interesting is that according to Borgstrom, AA was not even aware that it was possible to re-open the case and it looks like it was his initiative to do so, which raises the question of why. A possible reason is that he is a self-described feminist who served as ombudsman for gender equality from 2000-2007 when the SDP was in power in the Swedish government and has a high profile. He may have felt that a genuine wrong had been committed that warranted further action. On the other hand, he may have seen an opportunity to advance a political agenda to help his political friends and patrons. After all, Borgstrom is a strong supporter of the Swedish military's involvement with the US military and is a well-connected member of the SDP and its leader Sahlin.

Borgstrom got the case re-opened (after the chief Stockholm prosecutor in Stockholm decided not to continue with the case) by appealing to Sweden's director of public prosecutions Marianne Ny, who is a friend of his and also well-connected to the SDP. Ny took over the case on September 1. The police questioned Assange in Sweden and he was told he could leave the country. But after he left, Ny put out a red alert on Interpol that Assange had 'fled' and that when he is caught he should be held without access to lawyers, visitors or other prisoners.

All this does not mean that the allegations against Assange are false and purely trumped up. That is something for the courts to decide. It is quite possible that the original series of events between Assange and the two women and the resulting charges against him were purely apolitical. But once a prosecutor has decided to drop a case, it usually requires someone influential with a strong interest in the case to go to a higher authority to get it re-opened. The actions of Borgstrom in going over the head of a chief prosecutor to re-open the case, his close relationship with the head of the SDP, his access to high levels of government and willingness to use them, the immediate release to the press of the fact that Assange case had been re-opened, are all suggestive that political factors are at play at some level.

The zeal with which high-level politically connected people in Sweden are vigorously pursuing what everyone concedes is at most a low-level offense does suggest that political motivations entered the picture quickly, likely originating with Borgstrom, Ny, Sahlin and the SDP, all anxious to curry favor with the US government.

This should not be a surprise. After all, WikiLeaks is a real threat to the secret backroom dealings and lying practices of both governments. They will do whatever they can get away with to shut it down. Even if AA and SW are truly victims and completely innocent of any malicious intent, the US and Swedish governments would be eager to seize the opportunity presented by them to discredit their nemesis.

January 05, 2011

Going overboard

It's nice to know that we are not alone and that even Australia suffers from hyperventilating news programs and self-dramatizing, self-absorbed people to provide them with the necessary raw material.

Bradley manning and Supermax prisons

The January/February 2011 issue of the New Humanist has an article (not online) by Sharon Shalev on the Supermax prisons in the US where hardened criminals are kept. Here is part of her description of conditions inside.

Prisoners in a typical supermax will spend their days confined alone in a windowless seven-square-foot cell which contains only a concrete slab and a thin mattress for a bed, a small table and stool made of tamperproof materials, and a metal combo unit of a wash basin and an unscreened toilet, located at the cell front within full sight of prison guards.

Prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 and a half to 24 hours a day. They will only leave it for an hour's solitary exercise in a barren concrete yard or for a 15-minute shower on alternate days. Technology and design allow for these two activities to take place with a flick of a switch and without direct staff contact. Food, medication, post and any other provisions will be delivered to them through a hatch in their cell door, with little communication or time wasting.

The regime of relentless solitary confinement and tight prisoner control in a typical supermax is made possible by prison architects. Without their professional knowledge and careful calculation and assessment of every design detail, it would not have been possible to hold hundreds of prisoners in complete isolation from each other within a single, relatively small, building for prolonged periods.

And it is this extreme functionality, calculated to design out human contact and enable maximum prisoner isolation and control, that makes supermax prisons so chilling… This control of every aspect of prisoners' daily lives extends beyond the control of their bodies and movement across time and space.

You may recognize that these are the conditions under which Bradley Manning is being held. This is how the US treats its political prisoners, just the way that ruthless authoritarian regimes do in order to suppress any dissent.

Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011)

I was not familiar with his name until his death yesterday but some of his songs are very familiar to my generation, especially the unforgettable saxophone riff on Baker Street.

Also a hit was Stuck in the Middle with You.

And finally Right Down the Line.

The masochistic relationship of religious people with god

I described yesterday how I use the Noah's flood story to get Biblical literalists to confront the fact that the story, like many other stories in the Bible, describes god as a monstrous genocidal maniac. In this post, I will describe some of the ways they respond.

Last year, I wrote about a discussion with a religious woman who stopped me on the sidewalk outside my office to hand me some Jesus literature. At some point she started talking about Hitler, as such people invariably do. I reproduce part of the Q and A I had with the Jesus woman.

Q: Do you believe that Noah's flood actually occurred? A: Yes.

Q: In that flood, god deliberately murdered all but the eight people in Noah's family, including tiny infants. Wasn't that worse than anything Hitler had done? Didn't that make god the worst genocidal maniac in history? A: No.

Q: Why not? A: Because all those people died because of their sins.

Q: What about the infants? Doesn't it bother you that god murdered vast numbers of tiny newborn infants by drowning them? What had they done to deserve that awful fate?

At this point, she started making stuff up, the way that religious people do when they have no answer. They think they can get away with this because they assume that the person they are talking to does not know the Bible. The doctrine of original sin that says that even newborn babies are also sinners has always been a tough sell, even for the most ardent believers, and she did not even try to pull that one on me. She instead said that god had immediately gathered up in his arms all the babies who had died in the flood. It is a nice cozy image but irrelevant. A murderer who cuddles his victim immediately afterward is still a murderer, and even creepy to boot. It is also totally fictitious. I told her that the Bible said no such thing. As far as the Bible was concerned, in drowning babies god was carrying out his plan exactly as envisaged and I challenged her to show me where in the Bible it said that god had scooped up the drowned babies.

She was stumped and asked me to wait and went off to get reinforcements from the rest of her group and came back with a middle-aged guy and a younger man. But not only could they not back up her assertion of god's act by providing me with biblical verses (which I knew they couldn't) they had no better responses to the questions I posed to them.

Q: Is murdering a baby an evil act? A: Yes.

Q: Is drowning huge numbers of babies evil? A: Yes.

Q: Wouldn't a huge number of babies have drowned in the flood? A: Yes.

Q: So aren't you worshipping an evil, infant-murdering god? A: No, because if god does something, it cannot be evil.

At that point, I could not help laughing at the absurdity of the logic. When I asked the same question (in a private email correspondence) of someone named Henry (who also believes that Noah's flood actually happened and is not perturbed by that act), he too gave an incredible reply: "You have to take into account that God is the creator and he has the right to destroy His creation for reasons He chooses."

In other words, we are merely possessions of god that he can torture or murder at will because he created us and thus owns us. This extraordinary position was also taken by some unidentified religious person to Christopher Hitchens (starting at the 6:55 mark). In other words, the same people who insist that each of us are precious in god's sight, that he knows each hair on our head, and that he cares about our personal welfare can, when cornered, turn on a dime and say that he has the perfect right to treat us as if we are disposable commodities, to be tortured and murdered at his whim, just because he created us.

I also had a very similar exchange with a commenter to an earlier post where he tried to justify god's command to stone to death rebellious children by arguing two points: that someone who rebels against his parents is also rebelling against god and is thus on the road to evil and will end up committing murder and rape, and so being stoned to death was a good thing, a form of pre-emptive crime fighting. This is of course a patently ridiculous argument and not to be taken seriously. But the other argument was the same as Henry's, that since god owns us, he can do what he wants with us. The ironic thing was that this exchange was in response to my post about how religion can make good people do bad things, sort of proving my point. Only a truly religious believer could justify stoning to death of children.

It does seem to be unavoidably the case that if you believe in god and take these allegedly holy books as revelations of his divine will and instructions for how you should behave, you are ultimately forced into a masochistic relationship with your god, where you accept any and all atrocities committed by god, even against you and your loved ones, because he is your master.

The only way out of this is to pick and choose what parts of the holy book you consider the 'good bits' and want to follow and create a tortuous re-interpretation of the plain text of the words of the 'bad bits' that it makes a mockery of the holy book being divinely inspired, because what you are doing is imposing an externally derived ethical sensibility that has no religious basis onto your supposedly divinely inspired book. If you are willing to do that, why use the book as a moral basis at all?

There is something disturbingly pathological about the relationship of Biblical literalists to their imaginary god. Having someone demand that you love and worship him even while he abuses you is bad enough. To comply with such a demand when you can simply walk away seems to me to be a telling indicator of a masochistic personality.

January 04, 2011

Brainstorming on solving the recession

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

How Wall Street wins whatever happens

If you ask anyone how the last two years have been, the answer would be "Terrible!" Unemployment rocketed up to nearly 10% officially and probably about 20% unofficially and shows no sign of coming down soon. Homes are being foreclosed left and right, throwing people onto the street. Food banks are reporting difficulties in meeting the increased demand for their services.

But not everyone has been hard hit. As Bloomberg news points out:

The last two years have been the best ever for combined investment-banking and trading revenue at Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, 56, and his top deputies are in line to collect more than $100 million in delayed 2007 bonuses -- six months after paying $550 million to settle a fraud lawsuit related to the firm’s behavior that year. Citigroup, the bank that needed more taxpayer support than any other, has a balance sheet 14 percent bigger than it was four years ago.

The very institutions that created so much distress for so many people were able to get the government to not only bail them out but to gut many of the new regulations that would have prevented the kind of reckless actions that might cause a repeat of the crisis.

The U.S. government, promising to make the system safer, buckled under many of the financial industry’s protests. Lawmakers spurned changes that would wall off deposit-taking banks from riskier trading. They declined to limit the size of lenders or ban any form of derivatives. Higher capital and liquidity requirements agreed to by regulators worldwide have been delayed for years to aid economic recovery.

Can anyone doubt that we have an oligarchy?

In fact, corporate America has been amassing huge amounts of cash by firing workers and squeezing the remaining ones to take on the increased workload. This 'business strategy' goes under the euphemism of 'increasing productivity'. As a result, they increased their profits that have been used to pay huge bonuses to their top executives and raise their stock prices. Look at the Dow Jones index over the past two years.

dowjones.png

Does the index bear any resemblance to the conditions of actual people?

Ted Rall's animation succinctly captures what is going on. (Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow taps into a similar vein.)

The sanitized Bible

I wrote recently about my email correspondence with 'Henry' (not his real name). In the course of my probing as to what he actually believed, I asked him whether he believed in Noah's flood (the story begins at Genesis 6:9) as a historical event. Christians who believe this to be true tend to paint with a broad brush and gloss over the details. For them, it is a short story the moral of which is a just god punishing evil humankind and starting over with a clean slate, using just the righteous Noah and his family. The whole story is treated as if it were a road (or rather boat) trip for Noah and his family and all the other people are ignored. If they dwell on the details at all, they consist of quaint images of cute animals marching two by two into the ark.

I don't let believers like Henry get away with this sanitized version of the story. I ask them, if they think the story is true, to imagine the details of what must have come before the supposedly happy ending of a new dawn for humankind with doves and rainbows and perhaps Celine Dion singing in the background. I ask them to think of the steady non-stop rain, the relentlessly rising water, people panicking as they realize that this is no ordinary flood, parents gathering up their infants and children to save them, climbing to the tops of buildings or trees or desperately seeking higher ground, hoping against hope that the rains will cease, and their increasing terror as it does not.

Once they get as high as they can, they will do what parents instinctively do which is try and save their children, holding them up above the water even as they themselves get covered and are unable to breathe, wishing for some miracle to save their babies at the last moment. But nothing happens. The rising waters swirl over the terrified infants and soon even their gurgles subside to a deadly silence as they suffer ghastly deaths by drowning. [Update: Commenter Jeff alerts me to this image by Gustave Dore that captures my words almost exactly.]

Meanwhile god is watching all this and does not lift a finger to help. At any moment he could have chosen to save at least the infants who have not done anything wrong, unless you believe in the truly idiotic doctrine of original sin. But god does not do what any ordinary person would feel compelled to do when seeing others in danger, and that is to try and save them.

I ask religious people how they can possibly believe in such a god. I do this because if you take the flood event to be historically true, surely it must rank as the worst act of genocide in history, revealing a truly despicable god, one who is a callous mass murderer. Anyone who takes the Noah story to be true has forfeited any right to speak of morality or the existence of a loving god.

Religious people get increasingly uncomfortable as I describe the above sequence of events because I don't think they have ever actually thought these things through and their religious leaders never go into detail either, for obvious reasons. And this is just one story. The Bible is full of such ghastly stories of a cruel and vengeful and merciless and vain god. This is why any thinking and compassionate person who actually reads the Bible has a good chance of becoming an atheist.

Most religious people are not really taught the Bible except in the highly sanitized form they learn in Sunday school as children. I have in our house something called a Children's Bible and it omits all the horrendous elements of the stories, like Abraham's willingness to murder his son, god's commands to stone to death rebellious children and women who are not virgins on their wedding night and people who merely gather wood on the Sabbath, not to mention all the rape and incest and genocide. It reads more like an epic adventure story. This is reasonable for something written for children but the problem is that many religious people never grow out of it. Their knowledge of the Bible progresses little beyond their childhood indoctrination. For them, ignorance is truly bliss.

Next: Some actual conversations with believers on this topic.

January 03, 2011

What to expect in 2011

Here are my predictions.

On the political front, things are not going to be good.

  • We can expect an assault on Social Security, the dismantling of which is a long-held dream of the oligarchy. This will be facilitated by Obama, the faithful servant of the oligarchy, who has already signaled that the fix is in by (a) reducing the employee contribution to 4.2%, thus creating a resource problem where there wasn't one before; (b) saying that he wants to 'reform' it so that others don't do a worse job; and (c) encouraging his 'Catfood Commission' to use Social Security as part of their budget deficit plans.

  • We can also expect Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan to continue their assault on public education by diverting resources to charter schools and continue the practice of bribing school districts to fire teachers.

  • We will see Obama go along with the attack on public sector employees (he has already frozen their salaries) by cutting their numbers and undermining their unions.

  • We will continue to see further encroachments on our civil liberties and a further tend towards an imperial presidency, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

  • We will see a further attempt to siphon wealth towards the oligarchy by means of 'tax reform'.

  • Providing adequate health care to people and controlling its costs will loom as the biggest problem facing the US because of its refusal to adopt a single-payer system.

  • There is going to some political theater in February when the debt ceiling will need to be raised in order to continue funding the government. The oligarchy needs this to happen so the ceiling will be raised but there will be some Kabuki theater before it happens in which Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress will pretend that they are being held hostage by the mean old Republicans in Congress and that they are forced to concede to some of their demands in order to keep the government running. I don't know what specifically the Democrats will 'reluctantly concede' but you can be sure that it will be something that harms the less well-off.

  • There will be no end to the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and only token reductions in forces in those two countries. Furthermore, the wars in Pakistan and Yemen will escalate.

As I have said repeatedly, the oligarchy is most successful in their assault on the poor and middle class when a Democrat is in the White House because then the base of the Democratic Party is lulled into inaction, thinking that the president is looking after their interests when all the evidence points to the opposite. Measures that would have had them howling in protest if a Republican president proposes them are meekly acquiesced to when a Democrat advocates them.

On the bright side, the longer-term prospects are better. All oligarchies contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction and from the ashes of the wrecked US economy, there might emerge a better society. But the interim is going to be brutal.

There is also every indication that religion will continue its slide into oblivion. I know that this does not seem obvious, but the signs are pretty good, actually.

I will elaborate on these issues in the coming year.

January 02, 2011

O Lucky Man

Here is Alan Price singing the title track from Lindsay Anderson's great 1973 film.

I particularly like the line: "If you can't be tempted with heaven or hell, you are a lucky man."

So true.

The future of humankind

British director Lindsay Anderson produced a trilogy that began with If... (1968), continued with O Lucky Man (1973), and ended with Britannia Hospital (1982). Anderson's films were surreal and took swipes at all the stupidity and hypocrisy of society. No one was spared: politicians, clergy, business, trade unions, scientists, education, all were targeted with biting class-based satire.

That great British character actor Graham Crowden plays a mad scientist Professor Millar who was introduced in O Lucky Man, a wonderful, sprawling, surreal film with the best sound track ever (by rocker Alan Price). The role was expanded in the final film from which this scene is taken.

The story of the whale

Of all the arguments that are used by religious people against evolution, the most fraudulent is that there are no transitional forms between species. People who say this either willfully ignore the evidence that does exist or think that a transitional form must be a hybrid between two currently existing species.

Do you think that no one could be that stupid? Behold the infamous crocoduck argument.

Yes, some creationists like Kirk Cameron are so ignorant of the theory of evolution that they will actually go on national TV and make fools of themselves in that way.

Fossilization can occur only under very special conditions which is why they occur so rarely and why the discovery of transitional forms like Tiktaalik are so notable.

But if someone should raise this argument with you, point them to whale evolution. Since 1978, we have pieced together in step-by-step form how a mammal that can live in the ocean came about and it is a truly remarkable and well evidenced story. The short video showing how the story was pieced together is fascinating.

It's the tale of an ancient land mammal making its way back to the sea, becoming the forerunner of today's whales. In doing so, it lost its legs, and all of its vital systems became adapted to a marine existence -- the reverse of what happened millions of years previously, when the first animals crawled out of the sea onto land.

Some details remain fuzzy and under investigation. But we know for certain that this back-to-the-water evolution did occur, thanks to a profusion of intermediate fossils that have been uncovered over the past two decades. (My italics)

Starting with wolf-sized carnivores that existed between 60 and 37 million years ago, we see in the fossil record the steady evolution of features that were once suitable for living on the land becoming adapted to water.

None of these animals is necessarily a direct ancestor of the whales we know today; they may be side branches of the family tree. But the important thing is that each fossil whale shares new, whale-like features with the whales we know today, and in the fossil record, we can observe the gradual accumulation of these aquatic adaptations in the lineage that led to modern whales.

The story of the whale likely will not convince your hardcore creationists because they have learned how not to see things they don't want to see. And the truly loony will say that god deliberately planted these fossils to give us the impression that evolution occurred.

But the story of the whale cannot fail to have an impact on those who are genuine seekers of truth.

January 01, 2011

It's a small WikiWorld

Matt Taibbi on the bogus 'feud' between Obama and the bankers

It serves both their interests to pretend that they are antagonistic towards each other.

Faith and respect

What better way to begin the new year than by having the irrepressible Pat Condell putting religion in its place?

Best wishes for 2011 to all this blog's readers

Let 2011 be the year in which justice and law begin to replace oligarchic rule.

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