Entries for February 2011

February 28, 2011

How the big corporations avoid paying any taxes

Susie Madrak points out how the biggest corporations are avoiding paying any taxes while the federal and state governments are demanding that ordinary people pay more. She also highlights the movement USUncut that highlights the tax inequities and is based on a successful UK model.

Has atheism won already?

Some of you may be wondering what has happened to my series of essays on why atheism is winning. Do not fret, it has not been forgotten! It has just been displaced as the focus of the daily essay by the more immediate and timely issues of labor and the struggles in the Middle East. It will be continued.

But until then, here is Marcus Brigstocke in a debate arguing in favor of the proposition that religion has had its day.

The response by the Christian is pathetic. No wonder the largely young audience overwhelmingly agrees with the proposition.

Inside Job Oscar acceptance speech

The producers of the documentary on the financial collapse point out the dirty open secret about the mess.

A race of crocodiles

In Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo there is a scene were two men are being taken out for a public execution for crimes committed independently of each other. At the last minute, a pardon is received for one of the men. The other man, who had been resigned to his fate, becomes outraged and angrily demands to know why the other had been pardoned and not him, and insists that the other man must be executed as well and fights with his guards until he is killed.

On observing this scene, the Count notes the curious and deplorable psychology at work in humans where we seem to delight in dragging others down to our level, even if we do not benefit in any way by doing so. He tells his companions "Do you not see? that this human creature who is about to die is furious that his fellow-sufferer does not perish with him? and, were he able, he would rather tear him to pieces with his teeth and nails than let him enjoy the life he himself is about to be deprived of. Oh, man, man - race of crocodiles, how well do I recognize you there, and that at all times you are worthy of yourselves!"

I see something similar going on in the curious arguments that are being made against unions: they have greater job security, wages, and benefits than corresponding private sector employees and so they must be stripped of them. I will look at the evidence for this claim in a subsequent post and show that it is mixed and far from conclusive. For the moment I want to look at the psychology of people who would make such an argument. Rather than saying to themselves that they too should organize into unions so that they can receive comparable benefits, they seem to want to drag the unionized workers down to their level. Rather than seeing the union effort as a model for them to emulate to gain better conditions for themselves and their fellow workers, they seem to want to foist their own poor conditions on others. They are truly like crocodiles, dragging their prey under water with them.

Of course, no one actually says this because naked envy is an ugly and repulsive thing to behold. It is usually couched in high-minded language that unions are harming the country or the economy or a particular industry or that unions are somehow undermining the very moral fiber of the nation by enabling slackers to continue to be employed, thus setting a bad example. Phrased this way, the oligarchy and its lackeys in the media can seduce otherwise reasonable people into supporting the attack on unions, rather than taking their pitchforks to Wall Street at the very real swindles that are going on there and are impoverishing us all.

What makes this even more curious is that people are obsessed with the alleged slight benefits of those just like themselves. After all, people who work in unionized jobs are never rich or even upper middle class. Often they are members of the working poor and most are middle class. (And by middle class I really mean middle class, with family incomes around the median value of around $50,000, not the absurd definitions being tossed around nowadays that encompass even those earning around $200,000.) Why would anyone begrudge people at that income level their job security or heath or retirement benefits? If they have desirable conditions why aren't people seeking to expand those to everyone, instead of bringing them down?

The arguments that I hear against unions are very similar to the ones I hear in education. The performance of the US education system is mixed. It has some excellent features and some serious weaknesses. It is also a highly variable system, depending strongly on local factors. But whenever the US economy gets into trouble or the stock market tanks, the cry goes up amongst those opposed to the public school system that the fault lies with our awful public education system and that it needs to be revamped or even eliminated. But when the economy is doing well and the stock market is surging, does one hear praise for that same educational system? Of course not.

The same thing happens with unions. People are quick to blame them when things are bad but never praise them when things are good. Take the US auto industry, which has been going through some turmoil. The causes for the rise and fall (and now rise again?) of the US auto industry are many and intertwined. There are many reasons that can be listed as to why they have lost their dominance: bad management, poor planning and R&D, inadequate attention to consumer trends, poor quality control, protectionism by other nations, adverse international currency rates and tariffs, labor costs, and so on.

But people who are anti-union are quick to focus on labor costs and benefits as if they are the sole problem. But US wages in the auto sector are not that out of line with other countries with strong unions like Germany, and workers in Germany get far better benefits. One big difference is that every other industrialized nation has a national single-payer health care system, while in the US health care costs are borne by the company and contribute directly to the cost of each car produced. This is a major cost. As Robert J. Carbaugh writes in his book International Economics, this adds as much as $1,500 to the costs of a car made here.

When people focus on labor costs as the cause for an industry's decline and call for the elimination of unions they are, wittingly or unwittingly, enlisting as foot soldiers in the oligarchy's war to squeeze as much money as they can out of the government and the people for their own benefit.

Next: The myth of the parasitic union

February 27, 2011

Rolling Stone and Michael Hastings have another scoop

Hastings reports how the US military in Afghanistan wanted to use their Psy-Ops team on visiting US politicians to get them to support the war.

The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in "psychological operations" to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned – and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators.

Like his previous article that led to the dismissal of General Stanley McCrystal, this one is proving to be another embarrassment. Glenn Greenwald reports on how the major media once again seem to feel that their role is to be defenders and protectors of the powerful, and they have turned their guns on Hastings.

Incidentally, this puts the lie to the Village media's earlier claims that because Hastings was not deferential to the top military brass in his article on McCrystal, Hastings would never be able to get others people to talk to him.

How to save time following the news: Tip #2

Stop reading the moment you come across the names Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.

A new planet in our Solar system?

I was stunned recently by this report that there may be a massive new planet that we did not know about in our very own Solar system. I thought this must be a hoax report but apparently it is being considered as a serious possibility.

The hunt is on for a gas giant up to four times the mass of Jupiter thought to be lurking in the outer Oort Cloud, the most remote region of the solar system. The orbit of Tyche (pronounced ty-kee), would be 15,000 times farther from the Sun than the Earth's, and 375 times farther than Pluto's, which is why it hasn't been seen so far.

But scientists now believe the proof of its existence has already been gathered by a Nasa space telescope, Wise, and is just waiting to be analysed.

You would have thought that our knowledge of our own stellar neighborhood was complete but apparently not. The suggestion that Tyche existed was first made as far back as 1999 but not everyone is persuaded that it exists.

We should know with greater certainty either way by 2012. This is what makes science so much fun. There are always new discoveries to look forward to.

February 26, 2011

Asking the right questions of religious believers

Thanks to Machines Like Us I learned about a cable access call-in TV show in Austin, TX called The Atheist Experience. The hosts of this show take exactly the right approach. In this clip, a Christian caller gets stumped (as so many tend to do) when asked to explain why he believes in god and the Christian god in particular.

You would think that this is the question for believers and that they would have thought deeply about it. And yet when you ask them directly, they act as if the question had never occurred to them and flounder around.

Taking pity on the caller's inability to articulate any reason, the hosts of the show then very eloquently explain why they themselves became atheists.

Government-business collusion in breaking the law

Stephen Colbert provides an excellent synopsis of how the government is colluding with Bank of America with big law firms and corporate hackers to attack WikiLeaks and Anonymous and Glenn Greenwald.

Colbert also interviews Greenwald.

February 25, 2011

Comedian Dara O'Briain on Catholicism

How to save time following the news: Tip #1

I skip over every single news item that speculates on who is or is not going to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. All this exercise consists of are people trying to get their names in the news by coyly flirting with the idea.

This is the first in an ongoing series. Suggestions from readers are welcomed!

Do children pick up their religious views from their fathers?

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning say that, "Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation." (My italics)

The paper does not provide citations, unfortunately, though I did find a little support in the literature for the claim. For example, in a paper titled On the Relative Influence of Mothers and Fathers: A Covariance Analysis of Political and Religious Socialization (August 1978, JOURNAL OF MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY, vol. 40, no. 3, p. 519-530) authors Alan C. Acock and Vern L. Bengtson say that "The mother consistently appears more predictive in most areas we examined and is often the dominant parent in terms of prediction. The only areas in which the fathers had a slight edge were in Religious Behavior, Religiosity, and Tolerance of Deviance."

My parents had similar religious beliefs so I cannot tell who influenced me more. I had not been aware of the greater influence of fathers on children's religious beliefs and am curious if this statement is consistent with the experiences of readers of this blog.

So are your religious views closer to your father or your mother?

Why atheism is winning-6: The death of religious philosophy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, recently caused a bit of a stir when he said that he has given up teaching the philosophy of religion to his students because all the arguments for religion, old and new, have been so effectively debunked that he simply could not even pretend to take them seriously anymore. He felt that he would be doing a disservice to his students because of his inability to present those arguments as if they made any sense, which is what good teachers try to do when teaching ideas that they personally disagree with.

For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic "explanations." Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.

Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman's Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard "the case for theism" as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don't think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I've turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (My italics)

In response to a request from a commenter, Parsons provides a list of books by philosophers that he says provide excellent arguments for atheism: (1) Wallace Matson: The Existence of God; (2) Michael Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification; (3) Graham Oppy: Arguing About Gods; (4) Jordan Howard Sobel: Logic and Theism; (5) Richard Gale: On the Nature and Existence of God; (6) Nicholas Everitt: The Nonexistence of God; (7) J.L. Mackie: The Miracle of Theism; (8) Theodore M. Drange: Nonbelief and Evil; (9) J.L. Schellennberg: Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason; (10) Nick Trakakis: The God Beyond Belief; (11) Robin Le Poidevin: Arguing for Atheism; (12) Richard Robinson: An Atheist's Values; (13) Erik Wielenberg: Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

He adds that "these books provide a far better justification for atheism than can be found in the recently popular Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris style books."

I have no reason to doubt Parson's claim that the above books are philosophically more sound in their arguments for atheism than the current crop of atheist best sellers. But note that these are all heavy-duty philosophical books aimed at other philosophers, both religious and atheistic. It is a safe bet that most ordinary religious people have never even heard of these authors, let alone read their works. That is true for me (I have read one essay by Mackie and that's about it) and I have been a serious atheist for some time.

The point of the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Stenger, and others is that they are not targeted at philosophers of religion but are taking direct aim at ordinary religious believers and the bases of their beliefs. These people constitute almost the entirety of the religious populace and for them religion is not an abstract philosophy but requires a real god who acts in this world to influence actual history. This is why these authors have riled up the religious establishment in a very short time (new atheists books have been around only since 2004 when Harris published The End of Faith) in a way that atheist philosophers of religion haven't, even though the latter have been around for much longer and, as Parsons says, may have made much more cogent arguments.

The fact that the works of sophisticated philosophers have had little impact on popular religious beliefs while those of the new atheists have is why I think that the strategy of the new atheists is the correct one.

Next: Signs of religion's decline.

February 24, 2011

Stephen Colbert interviews the president of the American Federation of Teachers

Stephen Colbert on the attempt to break unions

The Daily Show on the protests in Wisconsin

Destroying the middle class by killing the unions

What is currently taking place in the US is a ruthless class war perpetrated by the oligarchy on everyone else. The pattern should be clear to anyone because the plan is being done at the federal level and repeated all across the nation at the state level: Cut taxes on the rich to create a budget 'crisis' and then use that to eliminate programs that benefit the poor and middle class. As a result we have cuts in wages and benefits, social services, education, regulatory agencies, and an all out war against labor unions, while the rich get richer.

One of the extraordinary features of contemporary American life is the willingness of so many people in the middle class to turn against their own class (and the poor) in the service of the oligarchy. The upper middle classes and many in the middle class support this assault because they do not realize that what the oligarchy is demanding of those below them in the socio-economic ladder is eventually going to destroy them too. Those professionals who smugly see themselves as people whose skills are so valuable that they can succeed on their own in the marketplace without the protection of collective bargaining and thus sneer at unionized workers as pampered and privileged and lazy, do not seem to realize that the reason they enjoy their privileged life and seeming autonomy is precisely because unionized workers laid down the foundation on which they could build their own careers.

Labor unions are what gave us so many of the basic rights we take for granted. Sam Smith lists some of the things that the labor movement in the United States led the struggles for and are significantly the result of labor union organizing and action:

  • The end of child labor
  • The right of workers to negotiate with their employers over wages, benefits and working conditions
  • The 8 hour work day and paid overtime
  • Compensation for workers injured on the job.
  • Unemployment insurance.
  • A minimum wage
  • Pensions
  • Healthcare insurance
  • Paid sick leave, vacations and holidays
  • Elimination of job discrimination by ethnicity, color, religion, sex or national origin
  • Family medical leave

People who have forgotten the long and often deadly struggle by unions for these things may think of the benefits we now have as somehow 'natural' that will remain even after unions are destroyed. But they are wrong. The oligarchy would like to return us to the days when management could demand any amount of work hours, eliminate workplace safety rules, cut salaries and benefits at will, and fire people for no cause.

Thus it has been heartening to see the solidarity amongst so many people in Wisconsin and Ohio who are demonstrating and occupying statehouses to show their opposition to these policies. We have seen some unions see through the divide-and-conquer strategy of the Wisconsin governor who sought to exempt the police and firefighters from his union-busting strategies. Those groups have joined the protestors, rightly recognizing that if the present assault on some unions succeeds, their unions might well be next.

In a weird way, the uprisings in the Middle East have helped their cause. Of course, we should not in any way compare the two kinds of protests since the people in the Middle East are actually risking their lives to overthrow decades-long repressive regimes. But what those other protests have done is make mass demonstrations seem heroic. If not for them, the American mainstream media, which is an arm of the oligarchy, would have been able to portray the labor protests in the US as 'lawless' and 'undemocratic'.

It is extraordinary that the political and media class acts as if there is no choice to solve the budget problems other than to cut wages and services that benefit the poor and middle class. There is an obvious alternative: Raise taxes, with the amount of the hike rising rapidly with income. Yes, tax the rich.

The tax giveaways for the rich in the latest tax deal that Obama and his congressional pals agreed to in December are truly obscene. They have snuck in goodies to benefit the very rich in all kinds of places. As just one example, it is only rich people for whom it is worthwhile to itemize their deductions in Schedule A. Most people claim the standard deduction of $5,700 while the rich can claim very much more. But at least in the past, some limits on Schedule A deductions started to get phased in for those people with incomes over a high amount ($166,800 for married couples filing jointly in 2009). But this year even those limitations have been removed, even though the only people who benefit are those who do not need more money in the first place. No wonder we have budget deficits. If one needed to point to one symbol that clearly demonstrates that the rich are determined to contribute as little as possible to the government while squeezing as much as they can out of it, the elimination of the Schedule A limits is it.

What is extraordinary is that there will be some people (even those who are nowhere close to being wealthy) who protest my post, saying that the rich have 'earned' every cent they get and are thus 'entitled' to keep as much as they want and that the government is essentially 'robbing' them of the fruits of their labor by taxing them at all. They do not see that the entire system is rigged to create a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such people have essentially a feudal mentality, a serf-like admiration of the wealthy, and contempt for people in their own class. All that is missing is their willingness to bow down and touch their forelocks as the wealthy drive by in their limousines.

February 23, 2011

Impoverishing workers

The Daily Show makes the point that the goal of the anti-union movement is to drive workers wages down.

Matt Taibbi on financial corruption

Matt Taibbi makes a point in an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone whose title says it all: Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?. The article says that, "financial crooks brought down the world's economy — but the feds are doing more to protect them than to prosecute them." One of the sources for Taibbi's story sum up the situation succinctly:

Over drinks at a bar on a dreary, snowy night in Washington this past month, a former Senate investigator laughed as he polished off his beer.

"Everything's f----- up, and nobody goes to jail," he said. "That's your whole story right there. Hell, you don't even have to write the rest of it. Just write that."

I put down my notebook. "Just that?"

"That's right," he said, signaling to the waitress for the check. "Everything's f----- up, and nobody goes to jail. You can end the piece right there."

Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail.

This immunity shows how deeply the White House and Congress are in cahoots with the financial sector to steal from all the rest of us.

Not a single executive who ran the companies that cooked up and cashed in on the phony financial boom — an industrywide scam that involved the mass sale of mismarked, fraudulent mortgage-backed securities — has ever been convicted. Their names by now are familiar to even the most casual Middle American news consumer: companies like AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Most of these firms were directly involved in elaborate fraud and theft. Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. What's more, many of these companies had corporate chieftains whose actions cost investors billions — from AIG derivatives chief Joe Cassano, who assured investors they would not lose even "one dollar" just months before his unit imploded, to the $263 million in compensation that former Lehman chief Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld conveniently failed to disclose. Yet not one of them has faced time behind bars.

When a society creates a class of people who think they are above the law and immune from any consequences for their actions, that society is doomed. We already have the spectacle of people in the US who are not prosecuted for crimes committed in the so-called 'war on terror', even gross violations such as torture. As a result, its political leaders risk becoming international fugitives.

The immunity that major financial firms and individuals now feel they have as a result of the power they have over political leaders is going to result in further financial crises.

To understand the significance of this, one has to think carefully about the efficacy of fines as a punishment for a defendant pool that includes the richest people on earth — people who simply get their companies to pay their fines for them. Conversely, one has to consider the powerful deterrent to further wrongdoing that the state is missing by not introducing this particular class of people to the experience of incarceration. "You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-a-- prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street," says a former congressional aide. "That's all it would take. Just once."

But that hasn't happened. Because the entire system set up to monitor and regulate Wall Street is f----- up.

The Taibbi piece is long but well worth reading for those interested in the state of the world economy. He describes how the financial sector is supposed to work to benefit the overall economy and how all the checks and balances have been grossly subverted to enable the looting.

In theory, it's a well-oiled, tag-team affair: Billionaire Wall Street A---hole commits fraud, the NYSE catches on and tips off the SEC, the SEC works the case and delivers it to Justice, and Justice perp-walks the A--hole out of Nobu, into a Crown Victoria and off to 36 months of push-ups, license-plate making and Salisbury steak.

That's the way it's supposed to work. But a veritable mountain of evidence indicates that when it comes to Wall Street, the justice system not only sucks at punishing financial criminals, it has actually evolved into a highly effective mechanism for protecting financial criminals. This institutional reality has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology — it takes place no matter who's in office or which party's in power.

Unless Americans become more aware of this and demand punishment for corporate crimes instead of obsessing about political trivialities, we are doomed.

The mental stumbling block, for most Americans, is that financial crimes don't feel real; you don't see the culprits waving guns in liquor stores or dragging coeds into bushes. But these frauds are worse than common robberies. They're crimes of intellectual choice, made by people who are already rich and who have every conceivable social advantage, acting on a simple, cynical calculation: Let's steal whatever we can, then dare the victims to find the juice to reclaim their money through a captive bureaucracy. They're attacking the very definition of property — which, after all, depends in part on a legal system that defends everyone's claims of ownership equally. When that definition becomes tenuous or conditional — when the state simply gives up on the notion of justice — this whole American Dream thing recedes even further from reality.

The story Taibbi tells is an absorbing yet sickening one. He names names. If you had any doubts at all that the US is run by a corrupt oligarchy of financial and political insiders who have nothing but contempt for laws and the ordinary people who are ruined by their actions, this article should dispel them.

February 22, 2011

God the fugitive

Whatever we learn, it seems like god always finds a new hiding place to prevent being discovered.

Middle East protests

As protests escalate in countries in the middle east resulting in various degrees of repression by their authoritarian governments, a lot of nonsense is being spouted by commentators here. Juan Cole tries to set things straight by listing top the top five myths about the protests.

Meanwhile in Libya, Gadhafi seems to have gone completely berserk in his attempts to forcibly quell the protests in his country and Cole provides some insights into that situation.

Meanwhile Yemen's leader seems to be also digging in his heels and it looks likely that he will increase his use of violence to repress protests.

Why atheism is winning-5: The battle for hearts and minds

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury says he opposes new atheists for our 'less tolerant attitude towards religion', what I think is driving his concern is the fear that the new atheist message is reaching the ordinary flock. After all, atheists are currently in the minority. We have no power over anyone except the power of persuasion. If we are as intolerant or arrogant or rude as our critics claim, we are only hurting ourselves by such alienating behaviors and religious institutions should be pleased. Their concern about the new atheist message only makes sense if they are worried that our message is getting through to large numbers of people. The news report about the Archbishop's call says that "The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion." (My italics)

It is the fear that knowledge about religion's shaky foundations are percolating amongst ordinary people that I think lies behind the other diversionary tactic, the repeated condescending criticism that new atheists argue at a low-level of sophistication by attacking the historical and scientific claims of religions. We are told that we should be engaging in high-level arguments of theology and philosophy.

This is a seductive appeal that has persuaded even some atheists who have theological and philosophical backgrounds, which is not surprising since it involves their disciplines and elevates the importance of their expertise. For example, John Shook of the Center for Inquiry, an atheist, critiques those whom he claims attack religion without knowing much of modern theology, saying "Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance… Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology."

I for one proudly plead guilty to the charge. I have said that theology is a useless discipline and believe that new atheists are perfectly right is pushing it to the sidelines as peripheral. If there is no evidence that god exists, discussing the nature of god is as pointless as discussing what color a unicorn is or whether it is mean or mild-tempered.

These appeals are meant to draw new atheists back into the academic and intellectual world of theological ideas that are far removed from the actual world of religion as practiced by most people. Following their advice would continue to leave religion largely untouched because most religious believers do not care for such discussions and will simply ignore them, however absorbing or compelling those arguments might seem to the participants in them. However, tell the ordinary believer that Moses or Jesus or Mohammed never lived, and they sit up and take notice.

New atheists should not take the bait and get distracted by appeals to return to the rarefied world of theology. Debating theologians may be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to engage in from time to time (because theologians are often clever people and matching wits with them can be fun in small doses) but we should understand that theological discussions are irrelevant to the major goal of combating religion. What sophisticated theologians engage in are exercises in which they can find some vague sense of spirituality to believe in because they know that the evidence and science are against there being a tangible god. So they concoct abstract theories of god such as 'apophatic theology' and metaphors for god such as 'ground of all being' and (my personal favorite) a 'plenitude of actuality'.

You will never convince a theologian that there is no god because they have essentially given up on god already by defining it out of any real existence. The entire work of modern theologians consists of finding ways to believe in a non-god. Their god, such as it is, is a slacker, dead, inert, passive, absent. There is simply no there there. It is a waste of time to look for any signs for him. To paraphrase Monty Python's dead parrot sketch, it has ceased to be. It is demised. It is a stiff. It is an ex-god.

Even the pope probably realizes that his god is dead and in trying to explain his unresponsiveness is reduced to saying that god 'surprises' us. By that he means that when people pray to god, their answer may not be what they expect, which is a way of saying that whatever happens is god's answer to the prayer. How one distinguishes that from god not being there at all, he does not say. This is the excuse religion has always used to gull believers who are disappointed by their prayers not being answered by a god who supposedly loves them dearly and cares for them.

Theologians provide nothing of value to ordinary religious believers except the cold comfort that some smart people also believe in some form of god. But the god the theologians believe in is not one that the average person in the church or mosque or synagogue would recognize, and if they were more aware of what theologians actually believe, ordinary religious people and even people like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would consider them as much atheists as us. Rather than fighting with these theologians, new atheists should encourage these theologians to spread their concept of god more widely to religious believers because such a non-god would alienate most religious believers and undermine their beliefs.

Most ordinary believers want an activist god whom they can pray to in the hope that he will intervene and supersede the laws of science in their favor, just like he supposedly did in the good old days of the Bible. To say that god did not really do the things in the Bible, that those stories are fictional and that god is a 'plenitude of actuality' would be a real turn-off.

Next: The death of religious philosophy

February 21, 2011

Scientists create Artificial Stupidity

The success of IBM's computer Watson in beating two former Jeopardy champions has resulted in more dire warnings that computers will one day take over the world. However, the search for true Artificial Intelligence is not easy, with the joke amongst people working in the field is that we are always ten years away from creating it.

But because trying to create AI is so hard, scientists have looked elsewhere for breakthroughs and have made some.

For years the project's development was overshadowed by the more ambitious quest for Artificial Intelligence, but scientists working in Seattle accepted that A.S. was a more realisable ambition within their own lifetime. Yesterday they finally unveiled the domestic computerised robot 'Kevin' who is so stupid that every day its owner will experience a wonderful life-affirming sense of their own human superiority. 'You tell it to open the door and it pulls the door into its own face.' explained proud project leader Carl Kinear. 'You ask it the capital of Argentina and it shrugs and says 'Madrid?'

For decades psychologists have reported computer-users feeling a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy as their machines asked them technical questions they didn't quite understand. To ensure that digital technology actually improves the quality of life, scientists finally realised that the key was to make robots even dumber than humans are.

(via Machines Like Us)

Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.

It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.

Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.

The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.

I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.

As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.

One such tactic is to attack the 'tone' taken by new atheists and argue that we are not 'tolerant'. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".

Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls "atheist extremism", an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.

I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.

Next: The battle for hearts and minds.

February 20, 2011

Remake of Casino Royale

By the creators of That Mitchell and Webb Look.

Curveball confesses to lying about Iraq

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Iraqi defector known as 'Curveball' was the source of much of the false information that was used to argue that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. There were doubts from the beginning about Curveball's veracity and plenty of reasons to doubt him but these were brushed aside in the drive to gin up support for the invasion. Curveball himself says that his German interrogators knew he was lying as early as 2000.

Now Curveball admits to having lied all along and justifies it by saying he wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Colin Powell says that he is seeking answers as to how it was that those lies resulted in his famous speech to the UN being full of lies too. This is typical Powell, an obsessed careerist, always unprincipled, always doing whatever his superiors tell him to, and then trying to repair his image.

Paul Craig Roberts expresses his shame and disgust with how the leadership of the US knowingly and willfully lied to their own people and the world, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

February 19, 2011

What a great idea!

The budget problem in the US is caused by the fact that people want a lot of the services that the government provides but don't want to pay for them. That great economic genius Donald Trump knows how to solve this: tax other countries!

It's quite astonishing that no one has thought of this simple solution before.

Why means testing of Social Security benefits is a bad idea

One of the ideas being floated around is to 'means test' Social Security benefits. i.e., to base benefits on income and wealth. Kevin Drum explains why this is already being done at some level by the way benefits are calculated and why it would be a pointless exercise to pursue any further.

Paul Krugman also makes an important point about keeping our language on benefits clear. Using the umbrella term 'entitlements' in budget debates is meaningless because the economics of Social Security is quite different from Medicaid and Medicare.

February 18, 2011


I have never understood how modern societies permit male circumcision while they rightly condemns the female variants. It seems like as long as some practice is old and stamped with the word 'approved by religious authorities', it is exempt from the usual protections we give children.

I am glad to see that the creator of Jesus and Mo shares my concern.

System problems

The university computer network, which includes this blog server, has been suffering major problems which is why posting has been so erratic.

Sorry about that.

Why atheism is winning-3: The dilemma facing clergy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I wrote about how modern scholarship based on scientific and literary analysis has shown that almost all the things claimed in the Bible and their stories and characters are fictional.

One can immediately see why this knowledge is so dangerous to religious institutions and why they would not be anxious to have it widely known. The religious establishments have a vested interest in hiding the truth about the religious texts because they must be well aware that their entire business model and revenue stream depends on people thinking that at least some of the major parts of their religions are true. All religious institutions thus have to find a way to keep their followers in the dark about what their own scholars know.

After all, what would it mean to be a Christian if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead? What would it mean to be a religious Jew if the story of Moses and the exodus and the ten commandments were false? What would it mean to be a Muslim if the Koran had not been directly dictated by god or if there was no historical Mohammed? People would be uncomfortable living their lives according to the lessons of a work of fiction, however compelling a narrative it provides. One could make a persuasive case that the works of Shakespeare provide more useful moral lessons than the Bible but one is unlikely to find people willing to base their lives on a religion that is derived from the lessons learned from Macbeth. It is the belief that the religious texts are at least substantially true that give them their power.

It should not be surprising that most religious people grow up with a knowledge of religion based largely on what they learned in Sunday school or from their parents, consisting of a loose collection of stories, chosen for the purposes of delivering a moral lesson, with the selection of stories and how they are emphasized depending on what message that particular religious faction wishes to convey. 'Moderate' religions end up using a highly expurgated series of feel-good stories that omit all the cruel, murderous, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic elements, while those religious groups with different social agendas pick different sets of stories to emphasize.

Since children are never explicitly told that these stories are fictional, they naturally assume that these stories are based on history. Unless they actively seek it out on their own, people will never in the normal course of their lives learn the full extent of what their religious texts say or discover that those texts have little or no historical basis. Those who do can find it undermining the religious beliefs they developed in their formative years. The more one studies these questions, the more one becomes convinced that the texts simply lack any historical validity. Hence it should not be at all surprising why so many professors of religious studies are either atheists or agnostics and why sophisticated theologians of religion develop complex belief structures that are not dependent upon the historicity or truth of the texts. But since such people live in a largely academic and intellectually self-contained world of like-minded people, their lack of belief in the truth of religious texts do not disturb the world of everyday religions.

The people for whom this knowledge causes the most difficulty are those clergy who have to deal on a daily basis with ordinary religious believers. They are caught between a world of knowledge that they acquired as part of their training and a fundamentally different world of knowledge that they feel obliged to tell their flock.

Most clergy start out in life like most religious believers with a naïve Sunday-school based set of religious beliefs. Those warm and uplifting stories are probably what inspired many to seek to become clergy. But when they attend any fairly decent seminary that has scholars as instructors (as opposed to religious ideologues) and learn that there is no evidence for most of the people and events in their religious texts, their Sunday school based beliefs can be shaken to the core, to the extent that some become outright unbelievers while still undergoing their training. In their study of unbelieving clergy Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola quote one such priest as saying, "Oh, you can't go through seminary and come out believing in God!" and in an article based on that same study they say that two jokes they often heard were "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

But whether they remain believers or not, all clergy know that it would be a terrible career move to share their scholarly knowledge about their religious texts with their parishioners because it would destroy their Sunday school knowledge too and cause an uproar. So they skirt the whole issue, never saying that there is no evidence for much of their texts. As one such priest said about why his fellow clergy cannot share the full extent of their knowledge with their parishioners "They don't want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don't want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They've got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don't want to make people mad at them. They don't want to lose members."

While they may personally think of all the Biblical stories as nothing more than metaphors, these clergy never come right out and say so from their pulpits, except in the case of those few stories which mainstream churches have already conceded are metaphors, such as the story of Adam and Eve. These clergy are burdened with having knowledge that if generally revealed would likely destroy the religious beliefs of the very people upon whose beliefs their livelihood depends. As such they may even persuade themselves that they 'sort of' believe, just in order to preserve their sanity. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Next: The decisive shift by the new atheists

February 17, 2011

The Daily Show on CPAC

Conservatives got together for their annual shindig and their leaders tried their hand at stand-up comedy. Jon Stewart rates the performances.

Who holds the national debt?

As discussions about the budget and the national debt take center stage, it is interesting to see to whom the US government actually owes money.

Contrary to popular belief, China is not our biggest creditor. 53% of the US debt is owed to Americans and American institutions, with China coming second with just 9.8%, Japan a close third with 9.6%, and the UK next with 5.1%. All the oil-exporting countries hold just 2.6% of the national debt.

It's not easy being a hypocrite

Poor Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. The sudden popular uprisings against governments all over the Middle East must be causing them headaches.

When protests started against a brutal dictator they had supported for decades, like Mubarak in Egypt, they tried to appease both sides by appealing for calm and hoping that things would blow over either with minor concessions to the protestors or with a transfer of power to another authoritarian leader (like Suleiman or the military) that would continue to be a US client. The awkwardness of this attempt was clearly visible during the days of protest.

It must have been a great relief to them when protests erupted in a country like Iran where they dislike the leaders, because then they could try and restore their credibility by offering full-throated support for the democratic demands of the protestors and condemning the efforts of the Iranian government to suppress and intimidate them

But now protests have also started sprouting in Bharain and Yemen against authoritarian rulers who are strong US allies, and Obama and Clinton have gone silent. If they if they are asked to make a statement it will be to equivocate again like they did in Egypt and call for peace and restraint by all parties, which is the code to say they like the present government to continue but to give token concessions to the protestors. This is even though the rulers in Bahrain have unleashed riot police and tear gas on the demonstrators and many people have been killed and injured. Meanwhile reports from Yemen say one demonstrator was killed by police there.

And now Libya is undergoing protests and this is even more difficult. Gaddafi has always been ruthless dictator but Libya used to be considered an enemy of the US (Ronald Reagan bombed the country killing Gaddafi's young daughter, something to remember these days when we are treated to the nauseating spectacle of being told what a nice guy Reagan was) and then later became friendly. So how should the US treat such an erratic person? One can imagine Obama and Clinton scratching their heads and wondering: What to do? What to do?

This is what happens when you do not consistently act on principle (such as supporting democratic ideals everywhere) or act out of brutal realism (supporting every regime of whatever stripe that serves your own interests) but instead try to have it both ways, paying lip-service to democratic ideas while secretly pursuing realist goals.

Meanwhile the Iranian president is no slouch when it comes to hypocrisy, praising the Egyptian demonstrators to the skies while two people die when his riot police attack the demonstrators in Teheran. Hillary Clinton actually had the nerve to criticize the Iranian government for hypocrisy over Egypt. I never know how these politicians manage to say these things with a straight face. Actually, Clinton and Ahmadinejad make a perfect pair.

February 16, 2011

What is a Santorum?

In 2003, when he was a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum made some disgusting anti-gay remarks, suggesting that homosexuality was on a par with pedophilia or bestiality. In response, Dan Savage launched one of the first political google bombs that defines the word Santorum as, let me just say delicately, something pretty unsavory. As a result of this google bomb, this definition is what turns up first (even ahead of his own campaign website) when you google Santorum's name. How much this contributed to Santorum's crushing 18-point defeat in his 2006 senatorial re-election campaign is unclear

Now that Santorum seems to running for president, people who have never heard of him but are curious are (naturally) going to google him and get this result. Santorum was asked recently what he could and would do to combat the problem. It turns out that he has few viable options.

Although Santorum exemplifies the worst kind of sanctimonious religious bigotry, this episode shows that politics in the age of the internet can be brutal and that even the most powerless of groups can no longer be attacked with the kind of impunity that politicians have long been used to.

Comments problem

There seems to be a problem with the comments feature in that all comments are being rejected.

I have informed the system administrator and hope that it will be fixed soon.

My apologies to all those who tried to comment and were rebuffed. Please don't take it personally - my comments were rejected too!

UPDATE: The system administrator has fixed the problem.

The no-more-secret formula for Coca-Cola

One of the things I learned early in life is that the recipe for Coca-Cola was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world, almost on a level of the nuclear launch codes. But apparently Ira Glass of This American Life has stumbled upon it and released it.

So if you want to make your own Coke, go right ahead.

(via Why Evolution is True.)

Why atheism is winning-2: Religion's Achilles heel

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I looked at some of the theoretical arguments made by accommodationists for not criticizing religion and discussed why I did not think them very credible.

The other arguments that accommodationists make are practical ones. Belief in a god, we are told, serves some positive ends, such as inculcating moral values or causing people to refrain from bad actions for fear of divine retribution, and eliminating it would result in antisocial behavior by some. The counter to this argument is that there is no evidence that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or that lack of religious beliefs drive people to evil actions.

The other practical argument is that religions have been around forever and will continue to be around forever so fighting to eliminate them is futile and only serves to alienate those moderate religious people whose assistance we need in the struggle against dangerous and pernicious forms of religious extremism. Hence the best that atheists can hope for is to form an alliance with moderate religious believers. To attack religion in all its forms is to risk pushing the moderate religious faction into an alliance with the extremists. This is the argument that I am going to address in some depth in this series by arguing that the seeming durability of religion is an accidental byproduct of history and those factors that sustained it for so long are no longer the force they once were.

The idea that one can hope to eliminate extreme forms of religion and be left with just the cuddly moderate forms is an illusion. On the contrary, it is the very existence of any form of religion at all that enables the extreme forms to survive. The followers of extreme forms of religion do not in the least see themselves as extreme. On the contrary they see themselves as the true believers, the center, because they are the ones who take the commands of their religious texts seriously and follow them diligently. The moderates are seen by them as people who lack seriousness and have compromised their religion in order to gain social acceptance in the secular world and enjoy worldly pleasures despite the commands of their religious texts.

As long as these religious texts are treated as venerable and as the 'word of god' (however one interprets that ambiguous phrase), there will always be extreme forms of religion and endless debates between moderates and extremists as to who has the correct interpretation of the texts. Such an argument is necessarily going to be inconclusive, since there is no objective means of arriving at a conclusion and what is the best interpretation is always going to be in the eyes of the beholder.

A better way to counter religious extremism is to strike at its very core and point out that the very basis of their religious beliefs, the texts themselves, are basically ideological tracts written by people at particular times in history to serve particular ends. They are little more than works of fiction using the occasional bit of actual history to create a fanciful narrative. They bear even less of a relationship to actual history than the highly tenuous ones that the film Birth of a Nation and the book Gone With the Wind do to the history of the Civil War and the period of the Reconstruction.

It is easy to make this case objectively and conclusively because the evidence is already at hand and the scholarly work has been done, is well established and this knowledge is widely known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts. For example, using all the tools at their disposal, such as archeological findings, modern scientific tools, and textual analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that almost everything in the Old Testament of the Bible is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. All the major characters and events (Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, the captivity of Jews in Egypt, the exodus, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.) are fictional. The story that the books of the Old Testament tells is interesting and complex and full of charismatic figures and magical events but so is the Harry Potter series but we do not believe it to be true for that reason.

Many people, even non-believers, will be surprised at the claims that I make in the previous paragraph, because even those who do not accept the Adam and Eve and Noah stories still tend to think that the later stories of Egyptian captivity and Moses and David and Solomon are based on facts. They will question why, if the falsity of these things are so well known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts, and given the importance of this topic and its obvious relevance, this knowledge has not been disseminated to the general public.

I suspect that these facts are not broadcast widely or even mentioned in polite company because Christianity and Judaism and Islam, even in their so-called moderate forms, cannot survive if these things are widely known because their theology all depend on varying degrees in believing in the historicity of at least some of these people and events. This is religion's Achilles heel. The advent of modern tools of scientific analysis has exposed this heel and has tilted the balance away from religion in a decisive way. It is impossible to see how re-truthify (to coin a word) these legends. There is no going back and this is why religion is doomed.

Next: The clergy's dilemma

February 15, 2011

The latest budget

The White House has released the president's proposed budget for 2011-2012. Given that we still don't have a budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year that began on October 1, 2010 and are operating on continuing resolutions, it is not clear that this budget should be taken seriously.

But the New York Times has put together a very nice interactive graphic that breaks down the president's proposals.

The strolling gorilla

Ambam has figured out how to walk the walk. Maybe he will later talk the talk?

Watch the video of Ambam (after the commercial).

I think that as Ambam moves around, they should play this song by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Whenever I hear this song, I want to yell out, "For heaven's sake Frankie, why don't you sing like a man?"

Why atheism is winning-1: The current state

For some time now I have had this feeling that the struggle between atheism and religion is over and atheism has won. I believe a tipping point has been reached in which religion has begun an inexorable slide towards oblivion. Not total oblivion, of course. There will always be pockets of people who feel the need for belief in some supernatural being. But sooner rather than later, perhaps within two generations, religious people will not be the majority that they have been up to now but will consist of small scattered sects like the Amish, viewed with amused indulgence for their devotion to maintaining a bygone lifestyle. This will seem counter-intuitive when viewed with the public religiosity we see all around us, especially in the US and the next series of posts will flesh out why I think this is the case.

Readers of this blog are aware of the current debate between so-called new (or unapologetic) atheists (some of whom refer to themselves jokingly as 'gnu atheists') and accommodationists. The former group (of which I am a member) feels that belief in gods and the supernatural are unsupported by evidence and that at a fundamental level religion is incompatible with science and should be treated in much the same way that we treat other myths and superstitions like unicorns and fairies and Santa Claus, beliefs that we might indulge in children but which no self-respecting adult would admit to. The new atheists think that one of the reasons that beliefs in gods survive is because religion has created a protective cocoon around it and made it a social taboo for people to point out that it has no credibility.

These views have ruffled the feathers of some and there has been some pushback. We are told that we must respect the sincerely held beliefs of religious people and not offend them by asking awkward questions as to why religious people believe what they do or pointing out all the logical and evidentiary contradictions. It is never made clear why we should give religion this special privilege that is not extended to other sincerely held beliefs concerning politics or history or human behavior. In every area of knowledge other than religion, shining the bright light of reason and science on it is seen as desirable, a way of separating truth from falsehood and the credible from the absurd.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, consist of people (some of whom are self-proclaimed atheists) who think that science and religion are either compatible or that if we do not think so, we still should not violate the taboo of pointing out the incompatibilities. The compatibility argument, when probed, eventually comes down to saying that there are areas of knowledge that science does not and cannot investigate and thus god can act in that sphere and hence religion has dominion over that area of knowledge. Of course, the claim that some area is outside the reach of science is an old one that has been refuted repeatedly as formerly inexplicable phenomena have been subsequently shown to be explainable by science. There is no reason to think that the currently alleged designated areas of inexplicability (the origin of the universe and of life) are any more immune to scientific encroachment than the behavior of the solar system and the diversity of life, former candidates for inexplicability subsequently explained by Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian natural selection.

An alternative form of this accommodationist argument is that issues such as morality and ethics and some vaguely defined spirituality are intangibles that do not have the material basis that is amenable to scientific investigation and that we must look to religion as the source of such values. One counter to this is that it is not at all clear that such things do not have a material basis. After all, all thoughts and behavior are governed by decisions of the brain which does have a material basis. In fact, there is a huge field of evolutionary biology and psychology directed towards understanding just how our behaviors evolved.

The other counter is that it is not self-evident why, even if we concede for the sake of argument that science cannot investigate these claims, these areas of knowledge should be ceded to religion. Why should only religion be credentialed to say what is and is not moral and ethical behavior? Why not psychology or sociology or anthropology or literature? Why should we infer our moral values from the Bible (to choose one source of religious values) instead of the works of William Shakespeare or Leo Tolstoy or Rabindranath Tagore or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Confucius? The only reason to do so is if we think the Bible (or the Koran or equivalent other religious text) has been shown to be true. The fact that it has not been shown to be true and in fact is riddled with claims that we know to be flat-out false means that there is no reason to give it preferred status. Religion has not earned the right to claim default status of truth for those areas of knowledge that are supposedly outside the realm of science.

Next: Other arguments for religion's durability

February 14, 2011

This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow's take on the events Egypt and Obama's response. fund drive

The website is holding its quarterly fund drive. This is an invaluable site for world news so if you can, please donate something.

The consequences of condoning torture

The US, like the governments of many nations, has long practiced torture and the killing of people. But at least in the past it had enough sense of shame and awareness that it was wrong that they would take pains to make sure that there was plausible deniability. With the advent of the Bush-Cheney regime and the 'war on terror', torture practices became acceptable and not only did they not deny that they authorized things like waterboarding, they even took pride in it as a sign of their toughness.

Barack Obama seems be going along with the practice of torturing prisoners in its own bases abroad or by the practice of 'rendition', sending prisoners to other countries to have their forces torture people. The US practices a form of 'torture shopping', selecting countries depending on the kinds of brutalization of prisoners they want.

Foreign nationals suspected of terrorism have been transported to detention and interrogation facilities in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and elsewhere. In the words of former CIA agent Robert Baer: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt."

While moralizing about human rights, the US has become quite accepting of torture as long as we are the ones who do it or it is done by other countries for our benefit.

But now other countries seem to be not quite so forgiving of these crimes. George W. Bush has had to cancel a trip to Switzerland because of fears that he might be arrested for war crimes, although the official reason given is that the hosts were concerned about disruptive demonstrations.

Scott Horton reports on what transpired.

Two victims of torture in U.S. detention have prepared a criminal complaint against Bush (PDF), backed by a coalition of international human rights groups, two former United Nations rapporteurs, and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The indictment appears to have been furnished to Geneva's cantonal prosecutors with a request that they act on it by arresting the former president. There's no indication that the Geneva criminal justice authorities would have taken such a step—which would have been certain to provoke a diplomatic incident between Switzerland and the United States. On the other hand, an attorney involved in the complaint stated that she had no doubt that Bush's change in travel plans had to do with the criminal case against him. "Waterboarding is torture, and Bush has admitted, without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use," said Katherine Gallagher, who works with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. "The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide—this case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next."

Even the Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson warned Bush that if he comes there to promote his book, he may be arrested for authorizing torture.

Donald Rumsfeld reportedly had to flee France because of the threat of arrest for war crimes. Other people such as Dick Cheney also face the threat of arrest if they venture abroad. Henry Kissinger is another person who deserves to be arrested and tried on war crimes.

How has it come to pass that American leaders are now effectively fugitives?

Scott Horton says that this is because the US government has created a culture of impunity within the CIA and its security forces. He says that the CIA operatives who tortured people, including the ones who committed the horrendous injustice to Khaled el-Masri, not only did not suffer any consequences, they were shielded from prosecutions by other countries and even received promotions. But there is a price to be paid for this condoning of war crimes and the creation of a culture of impunity where lower-level people are given carte blanche to violate the law in the war on terror. As Horton writes:

Such a culture has certain legal consequences. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, when an organization involved in warfare fails to punish or discipline those who engage in criminal conduct, criminal liability passes to the senior officers of that organization.

So because they refused to take action against torturers, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld could all be arrested for war crimes if they go to other countries.

This is what happens when a country abandons the rule of law and respect for human rights. Its leaders can end up becoming fugitives from justice. Obama could well face the same threat when he leaves office since he has done little to dismantle the arbitrary detention and torture system set up by Bush-Cheney and has even expanded its scope.

February 13, 2011

Belated anniversary commemoration

What with one thing and another, I forgot to mark the sixth anniversary of this blog, which began on January 26, 2005. I never imagined that it would continue for this long. I estimate that I have written close to two million words. For most of the time, the blog consisted of an op-ed length essay every weekday but last year I started adding some short posts as well.

I am now undertaking a new book project that will take up some time so I may have to cut back on the essays a bit. These take more time because they consist of reasoned arguments that have to be thought through and worded more carefully. But at the same time, those essays are the ones I like the most because I also learn from researching and writing them, so they will not disappear.

Thanks to all the people out there who read and comment.

Bye, bye Hosni

The abdication by Hosni Mubarak is wonderful news and the Egyptian people deserve our congratulations and admiration for their determination and unity in the face of the forces arrayed against them.

But the battle is not yet over. The country is still being run by the military and that odious torturer Omar Suleiman, favored by the US and named as vice-president by Mubarak, is still playing a key role in the government.

I would dearly love to see Mubarak, Suleiman, and all the other torturers in that country tried for their crimes.

The next phase is critical. The Egyptian people united around the goal of getting rid of Mubarak and were successful. Will they be able to remain united around new goals of democratization? Will the army actually give up its power in favor of a totally civilian government elected by the people? Or will it claim that is has gone far enough and repress any further attempts at relinquishing control?

The overthrow of Mubarak is undoubtedly inspirational for freedom-loving people the world over. It shows what ordinary people can do when they unite around a common goal. People in that region are taking note of what is possible and their rumblings are sending shivers down the spines of other autocratic rulers.

There are lessons here for the US and transglobal oligarchy too. You can push people just so far before they turn on you.

Gangland cricket

The cricket World Cup matches start on the 19th and will be played in venues in Sri Lanka, India and Bangla Desh. While I like the game of cricket, I could never have imagined that this game that originated with the idle rich of England would catch on with gangsters, ex-cons, street kids, and the homeless of Compton, Los Angeles.

But it has and the Compton Cricket Club has toured England and Australia. What is even more interesting is that the homeless activist behind it says that the game teaches people how to be competitive while being civil and those lessons have enabled some of the players to move on to productive lives.

It struck me that this story could make a good film, a US version of Lagaan. Keanu Reeves is apparently a cricket fan and could star in it. His skills at the game surely must be better than his acting.

February 11, 2011

Solar sail vessel unfurled

The idea that the electromagnetic radiation can exert pressure is an interesting idea that I taught in my physics courses. As an example, the idea of using the pressure from solar radiation to power a spacecraft has been around for a long time, and I used to give this as a homework problem.

It looks like it has finally come to fruition. Japan used one to fly by Venus in 2010 and now NASA has deployed one to orbit the Earth. Plans are underway to use one to fly to Jupiter later in the decade.


(via Machines Like Us.)

Obama cuts energy assistance to the poor

More evidence that Democrats are the ones who can really stick it to the poor.

The rotten US health care system-part 4

In the previous post in this series, I said that in order to get a simple and obvious mistake corrected, I had to make 17 phone calls to the hospital's billing office, 15 calls to my doctor's office, 9 calls to the insurance company billing office, and 4 calls to the radiologist's billing office.

What is also noteworthy is the large number of people I spoke to during this saga. In my calls to the hospital billing office, I spoke with Jennifer, Sherry, Sharon, Linda, Megan, Michelle (twice), Heather (twice), Kim (twice), Sarah, Mia, Amy, Caroline, David, and Michael. In my calls to the insurance company I spoke with Dema, Dennis, Pam, Vicky (thrice), Linda, Lynn, and one person whose name I forgot to note. In my calls to the radiologist's billing office I spoke to Debbie, Marva, Debra, and Colette.

All these people are employed just to deal with billing issues and customers who have questions and problems with billing. When you consider all the people and time involved in this one simple case, is it any wonder that the bureaucratic costs are so large in the private health insurance system in the US?

My conversations with the people in the billing offices of the hospital and radiologist's office and the service call center of the insurance company were mostly cordial and friendly. They seemed to be genuinely trying to help me but they were all stuck within this awful system. The only exceptions were David in the hospital billing office (who seemed like a smart-alecky know-it-all who was unfriendly and seemed to be annoyed at my persistence and kept insisting that my efforts to rectify the error would fail) and the 'coder', the person in the hospital billing office responsible for putting the code numbers on the treatments that were submitted to the insurance company.

This coder in the hospital billing office was clearly a key gatekeeper to the process and is a shadowy and mysterious person. Early on I had found out that the billing code for a bone density scan for someone with osteoporosis was 733.00 and that for a routine bone density scan was 733.09 and I used this information in all my calls to try to get the code on my insurance claim changed from the former to the latter. I was told at one point that the coder felt that I had no business knowing the code numbers for the various diagnoses and anyway that changing the code number would not influence the insurance company. I responded that it was not the hospital coder's business to decide what my health insurance company would do and that she should simply put the correct code and leave it at that. I asked to speak with the coder but apparently no one speaks directly to this mysterious and august person. I was amused but also irritated at the idea that I, the patient who was responsible for paying the bills, should not be told how the diagnoses should be coded. It seems to be part of the plan to keep us in the dark as to how the system works so that we meekly accept their decisions.

One of the lessons that I hope people will take from this is that in order to deal with this bureaucracy, one needs to be really patient and persistent. Also, you have to keep your medical records and know what they say. I have also learned when dealing with the customer service departments of any business to keep notes of the date, time, the person spoken to, and the gist of each call. Since almost every time you get a different person, you cannot assume they know the history of your case even if it is on their computers and it helps to quote the results of previous conversations to them, because when you seem knowledgeable, they respond better.

I am also very polite to the people I speak to since they are not the problem, although I am sure that at times my weariness and exasperation with the system came through in my voice. The people who work in these call service centers are also stuck in this system and I am sure that they get yelled at a lot by angry people. Most of them sympathize with you and want to help but are limited in what they can do, so it is not fair to vent at them. It is the people in the higher levels of the insurance companies and hospitals, the people we do not usually encounter, who are the ones who try to find ways to deny coverage and thus increase their institutions profits, as Michael Moore's documentary Sicko so clearly demonstrates. They are the villains.

I recount my experience in such detail as an illustration of what people have to sometimes go through. The sad fact is that it is probably not unusual. In my case, I was finally successful at getting the error corrected and the bills paid by the insurance company. But many people will end up getting stuck with the bill, either because they got fed up with the runaround or were paralyzed by the Byzantine nature of the process or did not have the time to waste on all these phone calls or were overawed by the system. Even I was tempted at times to say the hell with it, pay the bill, and move on. But given my hatred for this system, I was determined to not let it defeat me, and so gritted my teeth and fought it all the way.

It is important to realize that this kind of thing would almost never happen in a single payer system of the kind found in most developed (and many developing) countries. In those systems the patient deals only with the health care provider and all these tedious bureaucratic matters are negotiated behind the scenes between the single payer entity and the health care providers out of sight of the patient. As far as the patient is concerned, you go and see a doctor and the doctor treats you according to their guidelines and that's it. You do not have to deal with any billing office unless you have some kind of supplementary private health insurance system in addition to the single payer one.

The solution to the problems that plague the US health care system is to adopt a single payer system and eliminate the private health insurance industry except as a form of supplemental insurance. The easiest way to do that would be to extend Medicare to everyone. The private profit-seeking health insurance industry is a parasite that sucks the life out of the health system by diverting huge sums to the shareholders and top executives and to pay the bloated bureaucracy needed to keep track of all the unnecessary paperwork. It has to go.

February 10, 2011

The problem of each religion claiming to be true

Jesus and Mo and Moses struggle with the problem of reconciling the contradictory absolutism of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, while Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, and Jon Stewart debate the merits of the same three religions.

(via Machines Like Us)

Brazil gives out free medicines

While people in the US struggle with health care costs, Brazil is giving away drugs for blood pressure and diabetes free to those who need them.

Brazil already gave AIDS drugs free. It can afford to do that since it is a single payer system that gives it the clout to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices.

Prank on call center

All of us have likely had bad experiences with call centers where, after navigating through the menus, one gets transferred amongst various people, with the calls sometimes abruptly cut, and have to repeat your problem over and over again. In Belgium, exasperation with a particularly notorious outfit called Mobistar drove a group of people on a comedy show into playing a prank on them to have them experience the frustration their customers felt. (Note: The symbols that appear such as 05u22 refer to the time, in this case 5:22 am.)

(via Sadly No.)

The rotten US health care system-part 3

As I wrote yesterday, my latest bone density scan, when compared with two previous scan results taken years before showed that my bone density was not only above the cut off for a diagnosis for osteoporosis but also was actually increasing with time, so there really was no cause for alarm.

Thus the diagnosis of osteoporosis that had resulted in the insurance company declining to cover the costs of the scan and the radiologist's fees was obviously a mistake and you would think that it would be a simple matter to get it cleared up. All you would have to do is point out the obvious error (the doctor, the hospital, and the insurance companies had access to all my old medical records) and everything should be fine. But when I contacted the insurance company they said that in order to get the error corrected and the scan covered I had to get the hospital that did the scan to resubmit the claim to the insurance company with the correct diagnosis.

You would think that this also would be a simple thing. But when I called the hospital they said that I had to first contact my doctor and get them to submit a new form with the new diagnosis. When I called the doctor's office, they said that they had concluded that I had osteoporosis based on the results of my previous scan results. But since I had my latest and old scan records and knew how to interpret the numbers and knew the difference between osteoporosis and osteopenia, I was able to point out that they were wrong. They conceded that I was right and that the error would be corrected.

So that's that, right? You would expect that now everything would fall into place. You would be wrong. In fact, I predicted that I would still encounter problems in my efforts to correct this because of the bureaucratic nightmare that is the profit-seeking US health industry that benefits from denying care, and I was right. I still kept getting monthly bills for the scans and radiologist fees, and on checking the insurance company website and calling them found that nothing had been done by anyone. This resulted in a long round of phone calls by me to various people and finally in January of this year, eight months after the original scans and seven months after I brought the error to light, the matter was settled in my favor with the insurance company paying all the bills.

I will not bore you with all the details of what I had to do in order to correct what was an obvious mistake. In summary, I had to make 17 phone calls to the hospital's billing office, 15 calls to my doctor's office, 9 calls to the insurance company billing office, and 4 calls to the radiologist's billing office. Each of the phone calls to the insurance company and the hospital billing office involved first going through those infuriating and long menu systems that require you to choose between options and provide all manner of information before you get to talk to a real person. The worst ones (especially for people like me who have non-native accents) are those that use voice recognition, though I must admit the software seems to have improved somewhat and I am not misunderstood nearly as much as in the early days of this technology. In addition, I had to visit the insurance company's website numerous times to check on the status of my claim.

The sad fact is that I am sure my experience is not unusual. This kind of runaround is what many people experience in the US system and people in other countries would be horrified that we meekly put up with it. This kind of thing should not happen in a well-designed health care system like one has in single-payer programs and we should not put up with it! In my case, the experience was merely exasperating and time consuming. In the worst-case scenario I could afford to walk away from the aggravation by paying the two bills. Also my condition was not life-threatening. But for people who are dealing with serious health issues and also cannot afford to pay, the thought of being stuck with a large bill that they did not anticipate could be very stressful.

Note that I am also fortunate enough that I have the knowledge and access to information to understand the implications of the scan and lab results, to learn about what numerical codes should be assigned to various diagnoses, and also have the time and the ability (and persistence) to navigate through the complex system. Most people are not so lucky and they likely give up and pay the bill because they either get fed up or are overwhelmed and intimidated.

Next: Lessons to be learned in dealing with the system

February 09, 2011

Frank Wisner and Hosni Mubarak

Frank Wisner was the emissary sent by president Obama to Hosni Mubarak to, we were told, encourage him to leave office quickly. He was supposedly chosen because he had a personal relationship with him developed while earlier serving in Egypt as US ambassador. But Wisner seems to have gone rogue, saying publicly that Mubarak should not leave immediately. The administration has tried to distance themselves from those remarks but suspicions exist that (surprise!) the US government is not being honest in what it tells us and is trying to have it both ways in Egypt, trying to appease its long-standing ally Mubarak and the pro-democracy protesters.

Now Robert Fisk of The Independent reveals that Wisner currently works for a private lobbying firm that was hired by the Mubarak government to advance its interests. The firm Patton, Boggs is a lobbying powerhouse in Washington, with its tentacles everywhere, and Wisner's name is listed as a foreign affairs advisor.

Why did the US bypass its current ambassador in Egypt to deal with Mubarak? Surely the White House must have known about Wisner's blatant conflict of interest, since working for Mubarak means that his primary loyalties are not to the administration. Why has our media not made a fuss about this? Why did it take a foreign journalist to unearth this crucial information?

Incidentally, the chairman of the firm Thomas Boggs is the brother of the awful Cokie Roberts at NPR, and they are both firm members of the Village establishment.

USA PATRIOT Act extension fails

Some tea party Republicans shocked their party leadership by joining with many Democrats to deny the 2/3 vote necessary to pass an extension of some parts of the odious USA PATRIOT Act that violates many of our privacy rights.

The Patriot Act measure would have extended through the end of the year three provisions that are set to expire Feb. 28. One authorizes the FBI to use roving wiretaps on surveillance targets; the second allows the government to access "any tangible items," such as library records, in the course of surveillance; and the third allows for the surveillance of targets who are not connected to an identified terrorist group.

These measures will undoubtedly pass later under different rules that require only a simple majority, but this is the kind of issue-focused coalition that I was urging that we need to work towards.

The strange story of the US 'diplomat' in Pakistan

You may be familiar with the story about Raymond Davis who is being held on a murder charge in Lahore, Pakistan after shooting dead two people in a crowded part of the city. From the very beginning there was something very fishy about his story that the two people he killed were robbers and he acted in self-defense. The story had a lot of inconsistencies and made no sense and the US government kept changing it.

David Lindorff 's investigation turns up very different facts from what the US government is asserting. The mainstream US media is seemingly not interested in investigating this further beyond reporting what the US government says and the political implications of the case, which is always their preferred option.

Lindorff's article is a fascinating read.

UPDATE: It looks like the US government is raising the stakes in its efforts to get Davis out of Pakistan.

The rotten US health care system-part 2

I have written before of the absurd levels of bureaucratic waste that runs through the US health care system. Here I would like to continue a report on one personal experience that illustrates this. I do this not because my medical history is interesting (it isn't in the slightest) but to document the appalling inefficiency of the system.

In part 1 of this series I wrote about my experience with a routine visit in May 2010 to a doctor for my regular check-up. As part of that process I had to get blood tests done and, as is common for people who have reached my age, a bone density scan. The blood test had to be done by a laboratory and the bone density scan by a hospital. All these things are supposed to be fully covered by my insurance. Since I know that the profit-seeking health industry has all manner of rules that can trip up the unwary, I made sure before I did anything that my doctor was part of the approved network, the laboratory was also approved, that routine bone density scans were covered, and that the hospital that did the scans was also approved.

Of course, a month after the procedures were completed I got bills for the blood test, the density scan, and for the radiologist who had read the scans, because my insurance company had turned down all of them. Only the doctor's visit had been approved. When I called the insurance company, they checked and found that the blood test had been turned down by mistake and said they would correct it but that the bone density scan and the radiologist's bill would not be paid because the hospital's billing office had coded my treatment as indicating that I had osteoporosis and thus my scan was not a routine check for that condition but part of treatment for it and thus not covered.

Let's pause for a moment to digest the absurdity of a health system in which a test to see if you may have a problem is covered but treatment for it is not. It reminds me of my previous saga involving a colonoscopy (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4), a procedure to see if one has colon cancer. According to the insurance company, they will pay for the colonoscopy unless, during that very same procedure, the doctor discovers any polyps. In other words, when I go for the procedure, I do not know whether it will be covered or not because that depends on the results of the very same procedure. What kind of system is that?

But the point here was that I had looked at my scan results and knew I did not have osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bone densities can become so low that people are at a high risk for fractures. I had at most something called 'osteopenia', which is not a medical condition that requires treatment, but merely a label for bone densities that are slightly above the cut-off for a diagnosis of osteoporosis. The story of the origins of osteopenia is a good example of how the drug industry exploits the fears of people in its drive for profits.

All adults start to slowly lose bone density after the age of 30 but it was not clear what level constitutes a danger for fracture and deserved the diagnosis of osteoporosis and thus require medical intervention of some kind. As the ability to determine bone densities more accurately improved, a group of osteoporosis experts convened by the WHO met in 1992 decided that they had to fix a numerical value of bone density below which they could assert that one had osteoporosis. The felt they had to draw a line somewhere in order to make an empirically-based diagnosis and did so. But as with all lines drawn to demarcate two regions for something that actually lies on a continuum, the question arose as to what to do with people who were just above the cut off. i.e., those who did not have osteoporosis but were near the line. The group decided to give the name 'osteopenia' for this region. So one way interpreting a diagnosis of 'osteopenia' is that it means you do not have osteoporosis.

For people of advancing years, osteopenia is common and not something to be unduly alarmed about. But when you pin a medical label on something, you immediately create the impression that it constitutes a problem. The ominous sounding label osteopenia can be used to frighten the unwary ("You will get osteoporosis unless you treat it!") and drug companies like Merck seized on this opportunity to frighten people and boost the sales of drugs that purport to treat this condition. They heavily pushed the sale of portable bone density measuring devices on doctors, lobbied the government to get Medicare to pay for bone density tests, and heavily marketed their drugs that allegedly increase bone density. As a result, large numbers of people suddenly started being told that they have osteopenia and to fear that it was a precursor to getting osteoporosis unless they took drugs to combat it.

In my particular case, since my bone density numbers were above the cut-off values for osteoporosis, what had happened was clearly a case of a mistake having occurred either in diagnosis or in communication and something that should be easily correctable. But I knew that nothing is simple in the rotten US health care system and predicted back in June of last year that fixing this would be complicated and that "I fully expect that there will be more glitches and more bills requiring more phone calls from me."

And I was right. But even cynical me underestimated the amount of effort it would take to correct a simple mistake.

Next: What happened in my case.

February 08, 2011

New Yorker article on Scientology

This long article by Lawrence Wright goes into great detail on the abusive practices of this creepy organization, using the defection after thirty-five years of Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis as a focus.

Case Connection Zone

One of the best things about working at Case Western Reserve University is that it has been very forward-looking and supportive in providing technology to serve the needs of its students, employees, and the community.

In the early days of the internet CWRU, with its Freenet system, was the first in the nation to provide free internet access to anyone who had a dial-up modem. It later was the first university campus to have an entirely fiber-optic network going to every office, classroom, and dorm room on the campus.

In partnerships with other local non-profit groups, CWRU has been expanding access to free broadband access to city dwellers. This video (admittedly also a plug for the university) shows a new initiative to provide free gigabit broadband fiber-optic network access to the campus community and an adjacent neighborhood to research what kinds of new uses might emerge, with an eye to expanding the reach of the network.

The need for oversight of the Fed

In yesterday's post, I discussed the origins of the Federal Reserve System. In an interview, Jane D'Arista, who served as a staff economist for the Banking and Commerce Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and as a principal analyst in the international division of the Congressional Budget Office, explains what is wrong with the current Fed system and how it came to be dominated by private banking interests.

Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) have been pushing for the Fed be 'audited', i.e., that the books of the Federal Reserve be opened for public scrutiny, and as a result of their efforts the recent Wall Street reform bill has provisions that open a window into how the Fed operates. It has forced the Fed to reveal, for the first time, its own role in the emergency bailout of 2008.

Matt Taibbi discusses what has been revealed. It is the usual story of the oligarchy looting the public treasury.

The audit of the Fed was undertaken because Bernie and a few other members of congress fought very hard during the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform debate to force open Ben Bernanke’s books, and as a result we now know the staggering details of the secret bailout era. We know that Citigroup received $1.6 trillion in loans, and Morgan Stanley $2 trillion, and Goldman Sachs – the same Goldman Sachs that bragged about how quickly it paid back its $10 billion TARP bailout – over $600 billion. We know that hedge fund billionaires who moved their corporate addresses to the Cayman Islands to avoid U.S. taxes were rewarded by their buddies in government with huge Fed loans; we know that the U.S. government likewise has been extending massive loans to a variety of Japanese car companies at a time when many American auto workers in Detroit have seen their wages cut in half, to $14 an hour. There’s that and there’s more on the outrage front, and we know it all because Sanders kicked and screamed and stamped his feet about Fed secrecy until just enough other members of the Senate decided to go along with him.

Financial analyst Pam Martens points out what a major role the Fed played in bailing out the big financial institutions, showing the power of the oligarchy. Behind closed doors, the Fed shoveled out $ 9 trillion of taxpayer money to private financial institution, far exceeding the publicly revealed amounts. She warns us to expect more revelations in the coming months.

A careful review of these data makes it highly likely the GAO will be releasing some startling findings come next July 2011. That’s when the American people will have a much clearer picture of how the Federal Reserve shoveled taxpayer money to Wall Street by the trillions. As a result of Senator Sanders’ legislative efforts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is to complete an audit by next summer of the Fed’s lending programs during the financial crisis.

The data starkly show a comatose Wall Street being resuscitated with whatever financial might the Federal Reserve could pump into its tangled web of funding vehicles. It also points to how the Fed was dispersing sums which dwarfed the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout program while allowing the TARP to take the media heat for obscene funding of Wall Street.

Martens describes the incestuous relationships between the White House, the Fed and the financial sector, all working behind the scenes and using taxpayer money to benefit themselves. All the financial shenanigans that caused the crisis were due to these financial institutions finagling their assets to get record profits on paper that in turn resulted in their top executives getting huge remunerations and bonus packages. And when the system crashed, the Fed and the government bailed them out so that now they are still paying themselves huge bonuses while unemployment seems to be at 10% (officially) and 20% (unofficially) for the indefinite future.

The Fed was not bailing out not just US banks but banks worldwide, leading Sanders to ask, "Has the Federal Reserve Become the Central Bank of the world?"

When AIG was bailed out out in Sept. 2008 and immediately passed on huge sums to overseas counterparties, including Société Générale (France) and Deutsche Bank (Germany), there was a public uproar. The Fed data out today confirms what many suspected. This back-door bailout of foreign banks was just the tip of the iceberg. The Fed data covers 13 programs amounting to some $3.3 trillion in loans. We could only look at a few, but in every program examined, foreign banks were huge beneficiaries of a taxpayer-funded lifeline.

To see how far things are out of whack, if you ask anyone on the street how the economy is they will likely say it is terrible. Almost all of us are aware of people who are out of work and see little hope of finding anything soon. The rate of new job creation is terrible. Houses are being foreclosed and food banks are finding it hard to meet the demand. And yet, the stock market has soared since the 2008 crisis. All these are signs of an economy that is careering out of control.

February 07, 2011

Super Bowl ads

I watched most of the Super Bowl game and of course saw the ads. My problem is that although I remember ads, I almost never remember the product that is being advertised. So when the next day people rave about or pan the ads by product name, I have no idea which ones they are talking about unless they describe it. If you are like me, you can see most of the ads here.

I do remember that some of them were weird, some awful, some incomprehensible, and a few rather nice.

The secretive fourth branch of government

As every child learns in their social studies class, there are three branches of the US government, the executive, legislative, and the judiciary. But there is another quasi-government agency that operates behind a veil of secrecy and yet wields enormous influence over the US economy (and thus indirectly the world economy) and deserves to be considered as a fourth branch. This is the Federal Reserve system of the US, commonly referred to as the Fed.

The way the Fed works is by controlling the money supply and setting interest rates. It currently does so independently of the executive and legislative branches of the government.

Before the Fed came into being in 1913, each bank printed its own money and the system was unstable with crash after crash. Legislation was passed to create the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks. The Fed was created to function fairly autonomously so that monetary policy would not be dictated by political whims. After all, when political leaders have the power to print money, we have seen in history how that has been abused to cover reckless expenditures resulting in runaway inflation and the eventual downfall of governments, not to mention immense hardship for people as the value of their savings disappear.

Although the US president appoints (subject to Congressional approval) the seven members of the Federal Reserve Board and also who serve as chair and vice-chair, they are usually people from or friendly to the commercial banking sector. Ben Bernanke is the current chair. The twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks across the country have nine-member boards and a president appointed by the banking sector, which results in the current quasi-public, quasi-private system. The body that sets monetary policy is the Federal Open Markets Committee that consists of the full seven members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the twelve regional bank presidents, although only five of the latter twelve are voting members of this committee at any given time.

While an argument can be made for insulating the Fed at least partially from political pressure, there is little reason for allowing its workings to be secret. There is no reason why the Fed, an agency that is ultimately responsible to the people, should be allowed to do what it wants without public scrutiny. In fact, the Fed was created by an act of Congress and Congress only delegated to it the right to make these kinds of financial decisions. The Fed is an agency of Congress and thus subject to oversight but over time, Congress has abdicated that oversight role and left the Fed to pretty much serve the interests of the financial sector. This should not be surprising considering that the financial sector pours money into the coffers of congressional members to make sure they are friendly to it.

Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) has long been a critic of the Fed and would like to see it eliminated. He believes that despite its relative autonomy, the Fed's ability to print money still leads to reckless spending. As part of his efforts at fiscal reform, he wants to return the US to a time when its currency was based on the gold and silver standard, where those precious metals would be the ultimate currency and the US dollar would have a fixed value with respect to an ounce of those metals. This would restrict the amount of dollars in circulation to the amount of gold and silver that the US government owns, since anyone would have the right to demand that the government exchange their dollars for gold or silver at that fixed rate.

The US, as part of the Bretton Woods international system of currency rates created after World War II, used to have such a system where gold had the fixed value of $35 per ounce, but in 1971 President Nixon abandoned the system. At that time, the Vietnam war was creating huge budget deficits that were financed by government borrowing substantially funded by foreign governments, which meant that the US no longer had enough gold to cover its obligations. As other countries sensed this deficiency, they demanded gold for their dollars and US gold reserves dropped to dangerously low levels so Nixon abruptly announced that the US was leaving the gold standard. (The plot of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, based on Ian Fleming's 1959 novel, centered on the villain trying to irradiate the US gold reserves in Fort Knox thus making them useless as currency.)

Ever since the de-linking of the US dollar to the gold standard, the price of gold has fluctuated with the current price being around $1350 per ounce.

Ron Paul thinks that the Fed should be abolished and Stephen Colbert comments on this idea.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold Faithful
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

Stephen Colbert also has Ron Paul debate Davis Leonhardt on whether going back to the gold standard iis a good idea. The 'debate' is not very informative, though.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold Faithful - Ron Paul & David Leonhardt<a>
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

The idea of whether the US should go back to the gold standard is a little too much into the economic weeds for me. My initial reaction is to be skeptical of it although I really do not have the expertise to judge. The idea of a monetary system being based on the supply of mineral ores that are scattered unevenly across the globe and unrelated to any economic system seems a bit weird to me.

Next: Efforts to increase oversight of the Fed.

February 06, 2011

Man puts wife on the no-fly list

I have written before about how the US government uses the secrecy of the no-fly list to put people into involuntary exile as a form of punishment and coercion.

Now a UK security official has used it to solve a personal problem, such as freeing himself of the presence of his troublesome wife for three years by secretly inserting her name on the list while she was visiting her relatives overseas. As is the case, airline and immigration officers refused to tell her why she could not travel back to England.

He got caught when he applied for a promotion that required a new security check that unearthed the fact that his wife was on a terrorist watch list.

Apart from his legal troubles, he now also has to face his wife…

John Barry (1933-2011)

Five-time Oscar-winning composer John Barry died recently. He was the man who orchestrated (though did not compose) the famous James Bond theme and also composed the soundtrack for eleven of the Bond films and numerous other acclaimed films.

My own favorite is the great Shirley Bassey singing the title song from Goldfinger.

In this amusing interview on Fresh Air in 1999, Barry reminiscences about how the Bond film producers would give him film titles and ask him and the lyricists to create songs around them at short notice. The songs often made no sense (about Thunderball he said, "I don't think anybody really analyzed what the hell [Tom Jones] was singing about. And I still don't know what the song is about to this day") but the sheer force of the music and the singers' power carried them along.

When Shirley Bassey was approached to sing the Goldfinger song, she asked "Well, what in the hell is this about?" and he replied "It's about a villain… Don't think too much about it." He told Tom Jones who also was baffled as to what the song Thunderball was about, "Tom, don't ask. Just take a leaf out of Shirley's book, get in the studio, sing the hell out of it and leave."

Here is the opening sequence from Thunderball.

February 05, 2011

Stephen Colbert on Bill O'Reilly's latest argument for god

Recall that Bill O'Reilly's argument that "the tide comes in, the tide goes out, so god exists" received considerable and well-deserved derision. He then expanded on what he meant, which resulted in further hilarity all around, such as this response from Stephen Colbert.

What is the internet?

Watch this clip from NBC's Today show where Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, and an unidentified person are puzzled about this new thing called the internet.

Apparently NBC has fired the person who unearthed this old clip and uploaded it to YouTube. Why? If it is because they think it is embarrassing to have their news anchors not know what the internet is, that's absurd. They have nothing to be ashamed of because this took place in early 1994 and their views were typical for that time, which was the early days of the internet, whose origins were around 1989.

Since I worked in universities and national research labs, we used email a long time before the rest of the community although at that time there was a patchwork of communication methods. I remember using Bitnet for email and Telenet for remote access to computers.

The internet really took off with the arrival in 1993 of the first web browser called Mosaic. I remember how in 1993 I had to teach a group of people what the internet was and how it worked and I barely understood it myself. We were all struggling to understand and use it.

We forget how recently this world came into being, so the cluelessness of the NBC team is perfectly understandable.

February 04, 2011

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Last week I attended a conference in San Francisco and over the weekend visited Monterey and went to the aquarium. It is well worth a visit. There were many interesting things to see but what really caught my imagination were the sea dragons and the jellies (watch the videos), they were so delicate and beautiful.

What impressed me, other than the marine exhibits themselves, was that the museum takes its educational mission seriously, devoting quite a bit of attention to educating its visitors about what sea food is harvested in a manner that is sustainable and what we should look out for. Their website offers practical guides on what to buy.

The museum is also outspoken about its concerns about the negative impact of climate change. There was no wishy-washy equivocation. It may be that because the museum is run by a private foundation, it is relatively immune to the pressures that the global warming and evolution deniers have exerted on government institutions like the Smithsonian museums.

How the government (and others) spy on you…

… with assistance from all the telephone and internet companies, such as ISPs, search engines, and social networks. The basic message from Christopher Soghoian is: You have no privacy on the web, especially from the government.

The talk is a bit long and gets a bit technical at times but is fascinating and depressing at the same time.

At the end, he reveals which cell-phone carrier is best for privacy and why. (Spoiler alert: it is T-mobile.)

(Thanks to Jonathan)

The Daily Show's take on the State of the Union

Since I was traveling last week, this is a bit dated but I found it funny.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
State of the Union 2011 - Night of Too Many Promises
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They also took on the rebuttal by the loopy Michele Bachmann.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
State of the Union 2011 - Republican Rebuttal
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For some reason, as I was watching Bachmann, I was reminded of that campy TV vampirish character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Maybe it was that heavy eye shadow.


The hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience

I recently had lunch with a group of people including one young woman who was a vegan. She said that she often received negative, even hostile, receptions from people she worked with or others in social settings when they found out she was a vegan, even though she was not a proselytizer about it and even if she mentioned it only in passing during casual conversation and it was relevant to the conversation.

I had noticed this before. For some reason, some omnivores seem to view vegetarians and vegans as a threat to their own values and often try to convince them that meat eating is better for them. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian who lived a very long and healthy life, amusingly described this odd response (quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 171):

When a man of normal habits is ill, everyone hastens to assure him that he is going to recover. When a vegetarian is ill (which fortunately very seldom happens), everyone assures him that he is going to die, and that they told him so, and that it serves him right. They implore him to take at least a little gravy, so as to give himself a chance of lasting out the night. They tell him awful stories of cases just like his own which ended fatally after indescribable torments; and when he tremblingly inquires whether the victims were not hardened meat-eaters, they tell him he must not talk, as it is not good for him.

Some people tell vegans that human beings have evolved as omnivores and thus eating meat is 'natural', and that vegans and vegetarians are therefore going against nature. Others argue that a healthy diet requires some meat products, and that a vegan diet runs the risk of not providing some essential nutrients. Yet others argue that plants also have feelings and that eating them is as bad as eating meat. Yet others try to find contradictions in the vegan lifestyle, by arguing that if they are to be consistent, they should not wear leather products or use insect sprays or antibiotics, since these also harm living things.

All these arguments are unconvincing.

It is true that humans have evolved as omnivores in that our bodies are capable of extracting nutrients from animal products, but that does not mean that being an omnivore is the preferred state. Just because something occurs in nature does not automatically make it desirable. Our evolutionary history has resulted in many features (the ability to use violence to satisfy our needs, for example) that we try to suppress in the name of civilized behavior.

It is true that being a vegan requires closer attention to what one eats to make sure that all the required nutrients (such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids) are in one's diet but these can be easily dealt with by taking supplements if one does not want to go through the bother of carefully balancing one's meals. While some studies indicate that there can be negative health risks of a vegan diet, the consensus is that a vegetarian diet is superior to a meat-based diet for overall health.

The idea that plants are also living things that may have feelings and that vegans are hypocritical for eating them and not meat is really quite silly. The key issue is whether we are causing unnecessary suffering in other living things by using them for our purposes. Suffering requires a minimal central nervous system. Where one draws the line on what life forms can suffer is not easy but plants (and even bacteria and jellyfish) seem to not have the kind of system we think is necessary to experience suffering.

The idea that unless one is 100% consistent in one's actions, then one should not be a vegan at all is not tenable. If the ethical goal is to minimize suffering, then the fact that a vegan wears leather shoes or kills bugs does not take away from the fact that they cause less suffering than someone who eats meat.

The arguments that vegans encounter have little merit. But what interests me is why they face this kind of gratuitous hostility at all. If people want to be vegans, why not simply let them be? After all, they are not harming anyone else. Why does it bother some meat eaters to discover a vegan in their midst?

I think that it is because we all realize deep down that when it comes to ethical behavior, the vegans (and vegetarians) clearly occupy the ethical high ground. It is more ethical to be a vegan than it is to be a vegetarian, which in turn is more ethical than it is to be an omnivore. Some of us accept this even if we do not convert to veganism.

For example, I am an omnivore. I know that I should be a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, and that it is only weakness and laziness that prevents me from overcoming my life-long addiction to a diet that includes meat. My efforts to minimize suffering are limited to merely reducing my level of meat consumption and opposing factory farming practices. I freely concede that vegans and vegetarians are doing a lot more. But others seem not to be able to accept this and feel the need to claim that they are morally equal (or even superior) to vegans and thus attack them, using the weak arguments above. I think they realize deep down that the vegans are right and it makes them feel uncomfortable to feel ethically inferior.

In some ways this is similar to why saying one is an atheist also seems to arouse antagonistic responses in some people. It could well be that deep down these people realize that atheists are right and that there is no god but cannot come to terms with it. They cannot accept, even to themselves, that there really is no reason to believe in god and that they believe in god purely for emotional reasons or out of habit or because society, at least in the US, expects one to. The presence of atheists makes them uncomfortable because it brings them face to face with a reality that they wish to suppress and so they too concoct weak arguments to justify their belief.

February 03, 2011

Bill O'Reilly digs himself in deeper

It seems like the widespread ridicule that O'Reilly got for his 'argument' that the tides proved god's existence has got under his skin. He tries to explain and hilariously exposes his ignorance even more.

So basically god is for those who do not know any science. Glad you cleared that up, Bill!

(via Machines Like Us)

Why Al Jazeera is not found on US cable networks

Al Jazeera has become the go-to source for the current turbulence in the Middle East. Jeremy Scahill explains why it is that despite Al Jazeera being a worldwide news powerhouse, people in the US are not be able to subscribe to it through their cable companies. It is because the US government treated Al Jazeera as an enemy and the media companies here, ever obsequious to the government, duly refused to carry them.

During the Bush administration, nothing contradicted the absurd claim that the United States invaded Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle East more decisively than Washington's ceaseless attacks on Al Jazeera, the institution that did more than any other to break the stranglehold over information previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen, occupiers or ayatollahs. Yet, far from calling for its journalists to be respected and freed from imprisonment and unlawful detention, the Bush administration waged war against Al Jazeera and its journalists.

The United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan in 2001. In March 2003, two of its financial correspondents were kicked off the trading floor of NASDAQ and the NY Stock Exchange.

In April 2003, US forces shelled the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were the only guests and killed Jazeera's Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later in Baghdad. The United States also imprisoned several Al Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo), some of whom say they were tortured.

Then in late November 2005 Britain's Daily Mirror reported that during an April 2004 White House meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, George W. Bush floated the idea of bombing Al Jazeera's international headquarters in Qatar.

The Falluja offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation, was a turning point. In two weeks that April, thirty marines were killed as local guerrillas resisted US attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died, many of them women and children. Al Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged city, beaming images to the world. On live TV the network gave graphic documentary evidence disproving US denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger.

Just a few days before Bush allegedly proposed bombing the network, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Falluja, Ahmed Mansour, reported live on the air, "Last night we were targeted by some tanks, twice…but we escaped. The US wants us out of Falluja, but we will stay." On April 9 Washington demanded that Al Jazeera leave the city as a condition for a cease-fire. The network refused. Mansour wrote that the next day "American fighter jets fired around our new location, and they bombed the house where we had spent the night before, causing the death of the house owner Mr. Hussein Samir. Due to the serious threats we had to stop broadcasting for few days because every time we tried to broadcast the fighter jets spotted us we became under their fire."

Scahill sums up:

The real threat Al Jazeera poses to authoritarian regimes is in its unembedded journalism. That is why the Bush Administration viewed Al Jazeera as a threat, it is why Mubarak's regime is trying to shut it down and that is why the network is so important to the unfolding revolutions in the Middle East. It is the same role the network plays in reporting on the disastrous US war in Afghanistan. [My italics]

But you can be sure that the US government is closely watching Al Jazeera now in order to get a fix on what is going on in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Atheism rocks!

(Thanks to Randy)

Where to get news

As I wrote before, my social circle tends to be people who call themselves liberal and vote Democratic. What is interesting is that although these people tend to be avid followers of news, they are often unaware of important information. They watch the 'serious' news programs such as the NewsHour on PBS, they listen to NPR, they watch the Sunday talk shows such as This Week, Meet the Press, and Face the Nation. They disdain Fox News and all its offerings. They subscribe to the New York Times.

How can they devote so much time to learn about the world and yet miss so much? This is an example of Will Rogers' warning that it isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so, so I want to devote this post to point people to better sources of news.

The idea that I am better informed than many of the people I know sounds arrogant. What makes me think I know any better? Why should anyone take my advice on how to keep up with the news? I can only offer a purely subjective reason and that is when I discuss politics with people who are active and try to be knowledgeable, I find that I not only know everything they know, I also know a lot that they don't and can tell them that a lot of what they know is simply wrong. This is despite the fact that I don't think I spend that much more time following the news.

Since I am often asked as to my sources of news, here is my advice on being better informed, for what it is worth.

  • Don't watch the news on broadcast TV or cable. They take up valuable time, the ratio of news to nonsense/gossip/advertisements is tiny, most of it is uniformed and biased commentary focused on the trivial, and they distract your attention from the real news.
  • Don't subscribe to or waste your time reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, or any of the so-called national newspapers and newsmagazines.
  • If you want a 24-hour international news channel, you are far better off watching Al Jazeera instead of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. Livestation is a free service that provides live access to a huge array of TV and radio stations from around the world broadcasting in an array of languages and is my source for Al Jazeera. You download the software and can select the sources that you want.
  • Your local paper is useful only for local news.

The problem with all these news outlets is that it takes far too much time and effort to find the tiny nuggets of news buried in the mass of rubbish that they put out. Sometimes the most significant fact is buried at the end of a long story. This is why I value blogs. There are good bloggers out there who do have the time and energy to read and watch these news outlets and flag the few items that are newsworthy. So in the end, I do often read articles from these national news outlets but only the worthwhile bits.

For those of you who watch the NewsHour on PBS, you are far better off switching to Democracy Now! which can be found on the radio dial in large parts of the country and in video form online. It has the same format as the NewsHour with an opening segment of news headlines followed by interviews with commentators. The difference is that whereas the NewsHour has the usual predictable panel of beltway analysts who spout conventional wisdom (as suits its corporate sponsors), Democracy Now! has voices that are informed and provide much sharper analysis from a more progressive perspective. They will have on their show unembedded reporters from the wars and progressive commentators who are not beholden to the government.

The website is wonderful at linking to news articles from around the world. The Real News is also a very good site for comprehensive coverage of world events.

For mainstream US news, I would recommend the blogs Political Animal and Talking Points Memo as websites that link to news stories in the mainstream media and can point you to key elements. This enables you to get to just the main stories from these mainstream outlets without wasting your time on the huge amounts of rubbish that is there.

The websites Common Dreams and CounterPunch have analyses by people who are knowledgeable but whom you will rarely find on the op-ed pages of your mainstream newspapers.

Over time, people will find sources that suit them in terms of style and content. But the sites I've listed are a good place to start.

February 02, 2011

Saudi Arabia next?

Despite Mubarak being a strong ally of the US that has propped him up for three decades with money and weapons, there are no indications that the US government is planning to intervene militarily to support him. That is a good sign. It is annoying to hear the US government tell the people of Egypt what it would like to see happen there but that kind of patronizing interference is the norm these days and is on the scale of things a minor irritation. (You can imagine the outrage if the roles were reversed and the leader of some other country presumed to lecture the American people on what kind of government they should put in place.)

What is interesting to observe is to what extent these mass uprisings will spread to other countries. The president of Yemen, in response to planned protests against his three-decades long rule, has already said that he will not run for re-election in 2013 and will not pass on the leadership to his son. This practice of creating hereditary dictatorships is reprehensible and this move is to be welcomed though it is not clear if it will satisfy the anti-government demonstrators.

Meanwhile Jordan's king has fired his cabinet in response to protests there.

But these are relatively unimportant countries from the point of view of US strategic interests. The real question is Saudi Arabia. If that long-time, oil-rich ally of the US, the key to its middle eastern strategy, becomes destabilized and its despotic regime of dynastic rulers is threatened, there is a real danger that the US will be tempted to prop it up militarily or support a pro-US military coup.

Elite views on religion and censorship

What is true about elite attitudes to WikiLeaks also applies to religion and censorship. I am pretty confident that many of the elites in society are convinced that there is no god and that religious books like the Bible are fiction. As James Mill said to his son John Stuart Mill, "There is no God, but it's a family secret." But they do not share this fact with ordinary people either because they think they cannot handle the truth or they think that religious belief is a good mechanism for social control.

Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate (2002, p. 131) quotes neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol on this firm belief amongst the elites that people should be shielded from the truth. Kristol said in an interview:

"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

In an interview with Humanist Network News (HNN), Pinker says that Kristol thought that atheism is true but should be kept a secret, reserved for just a few. These people even advocated 'intelligent design' as a strategy for keeping the atheistic implications evolution by natural selection at bay, even though they realized that it lacked any evidence in support.

HNN: You mention Irving Kristol in your book The Blank Slate, and his opposition to the teaching of evolution, based on the notion that people can't handle the truth and need the security of religion. Irving wrote that atheism was a truth that should be held in secret by a few sages.

SP: It is ironic that the secular Jewish intellectuals should be more conservative on evolution than the pope, or at least the last pope. This new pope has lurched to the right. John Paul II agreed that evolution was the best explanation for the human body and for and bodies and brains of animals.

HNN: Would you call that theistic evolution?

SP: Yes, that's it. Evolution is responsible for everything but the human soul. We got a soul injection. Actually, it wasn't even John Paul that introduced that idea. That was introduced by Pius in 1953 in his encyclical acknowledging the evolution of man.

HNN: What do you think, though, about Kristol's idea that most people need religion and that atheism is a truth that they can't handle?

SP: This is an idea associated with Leo Strauss. This is an empirical hypothesis, and I think it has been falsified. Namely, the nations of Europe are overwhelmingly secular, many of them are majority atheist, and yet their rates of violence are far lower than American states in the Bible Belt. So if you want to know what kind of ideology leads people to be civilized versus to shoot each other to death, we have the answer: the atheist countries have homicide rates of one per 100,000, while Southern American states have rates 10 times as high.

The reason that some of these atheist intellectuals foster religion is because of their firm belief that only they have the intellectual mettle to deal with the absence of an external meaning to life that a denial of god implies. Pinker quotes Kristol as saying (p. 131): "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded – or even if it suspects – that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Of course, there is no evidence at all that this is an 'indisputable fact'. This is simply Kristol's belief that supports his smug assumption that only a few people like him are possessed of an intellectual fortitude that can handle a godless universe. The fact is that atheists of all stripes lead happy and meaningful lives without the crutch that belief in god provides.

It is the same with censorship. The people who want to censor what others can read and see are only too willing to act as judges and preview materials to decide what should and should not be released to the public. But why is it that they think they can watch and read this material without themselves being corrupted? Are they superhuman? Kirby Dick's documentary This film is not yet rated (2006) describes the secretive private organization that determines the ratings that films receive in the US. This unelected and unrepresentative group of people has taken upon itself the 'burden' of sparing us from seeing things that its members think might harm us but they are somehow immune to. They cannot, of course, ban films but the ratings they give can result in films not being selected for screening in most theaters, thus effectively preventing people from having access to them.

In all these cases, we see an elite that reserves to itself the right to have access to information and decide what is appropriate to be shared with the rest of us.

February 01, 2011

Mubarak speaks

Mubarak has just finished speaking to the nation and said that he will not run again for president but is not going to leave immediately. He tried to appease the protestors by saying that their genuine concerns had been exploited by criminal elements taking advantage of the situation. He was somewhat self-pitying, talking about how he had suffered to serve the country and had not sought power (Ha!).

The millions-strong crowds seem to have not been satisfied by the speech and the live Al Jazeera stream reports that the crowd heckled him and are now chanting "Leave! Leave!"

Turmoil in the Middle East

Like most people else, I have been observing events in Egypt and also Yemen with some interest, but since I have been traveling with sporadic internet access, I have not been able to follow it as closely as I would have liked.

Not that it makes much difference since I do not have an informed opinion to give. When events are unfolding rapidly and one has a massive uprising, it is hard enough for knowledgeable people within the country itself to know what is going on. Most observers in other countries will likely be clueless unless they have detailed knowledge based on long study of that region. This rules out almost all commentators in the mainstream media whose main focus (as always) is on whether these developments are good/bad for Obama/the US/Israel, as opposed to whether it is good or bad for the people of those countries.

Despite my ignorance about situation there, I must admit that I am glad to see brutal dictators like Mubarak in trouble. The US once again finds itself trying to distance itself from a brutal dictator that it coddled and supported for many years. Mubarak is following in the lines of Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Duvalier in Haiti, Pahlavi in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and countless other dictators in Central and South America. It does not help that Mubarak's newly appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman has colluded with the US in torturing people.

The live stream from Al Jazeera seems to be the best source for news and it is reporting that Mubarak is due to make a statement shortly.

What one hopes for is that whatever government emerges in Egypt is one that seeks democratic rights and the welfare of its people and is not controlled by religious extremists. So far, things look hopeful on that front. The fear mongering about the Muslim Brotherhood, both in terms of its strength and its extremism, seems to be overstated.

Egypt on the move (literally)!

Doesn't Fox News have anyone who knows geography?

Fox Egypt graphic.jpg

(via Brent Martin)

The conceit and arrogance of the elite

One of the features of society is the profound contempt the elites have for ordinary people, as can be seen in three examples: WikiLeaks, religion, and censorship.

In each of these cases, what we see is worry that the gatekeepers of information are being bypassed and that ordinary people are being exposed to information that the elites feel should be reserved for them.

It is undoubtedly true that people who are not used to evaluating raw, unfiltered information may be unsettled by having access to it. But the solution is not to deny them access but to help them develop, over time, the ability to make sense of it.

Why WikiLeaks has given governments and the establishment media the vapors is not because it has leaked secrets. If all the leakers and recipients of secrets were prosecuted and jailed, hardly anyone in government and the media would be walking around free. Secrets are the lifeblood of the relationship between politicians and the media. Look closely at the number of 'news' stories in the mainstream media that begin with 'High level sources within the government revealed today..." or "According to a leaked secret government report…" As D. D. Guttenplan writes:

Hillary Clinton may not like it, but when [I. F.] Stone observed "the State Dept. is constantly leaking material to favored reporters" back in 1945 (!) he wasn't breaking news either. Reminding Nation readers that "letting 'confidential' information leak out" is "the favorite Washington pastime," he cautioned: "If this is a crime, all but a hopelessly inefficient minority of Washington officials and newspapermen ought to be put in jail."

Government officials leak selected information to advance their agenda (whether personal or political) to selected reporters whom they know will use it in the way they intended and even make the source look good. The reporters in turn know the rules of the game, which is that they advance that agenda in return for future access to more secrets. Practically all of Bob Woodward's entire career is based on this practice. In this way, the hoi polloi only get to hear what the government–media gatekeepers want them to know.

By making secret documents publicly accessible, WikiLeaks has suddenly cut the umbilical cord that mutually nourishes establishment reporters and the government, which is why they are both thrashing around wildly, trying to stop the bleeding. Notice how the US government is trying to walk a fine line and find a way to create new laws or reinterpret old ones to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange while not having those same laws be applicable to (say) the New York Times or Bob Woodward, although this effort is unlikely to succeed legally.

It also appears that the harsh treatment meted out to Bradley Manning is meant to (a) intimidate any other people who might be thinking of leaking documents and (b) cause him to break down and incriminate Assange in some way. When some of us pointed out that torture was abhorrent and that we should not condone its use just because it was used against foreigners because one day it could be used against anyone, that fear was ridiculed. And now we see an American soldier, no less, being tortured.

When high government and media officials sniff that the leaks reveal nothing that they did not know before, they are partly right but this is irrelevant. Establishment reporters are often told a lot of things as background on the condition that they keep it secret. This parasitic relationship has got so bad that some 'reporters' (I use the term loosely) like the late Tim Russert are quite comfortable saying that they simply assume that what they are told is secret to begin with. But the fact that a few reporters are given privileged access to information does not help the average citizen in the least.

You can also be sure that the very same people who are bemoaning most loudly the release of the WikiLeaks documents are the same ones who are voraciously reading them. If the leaks are so bad, why are they not refraining themselves? Why are they trying to deny access to other people? The reason should be obvious. They are fearful or losing their role as gatekeepers of information.

Next: The elite view on religion and censorship