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Entries for December 2011

December 31, 2011

Antonio Damasio on the quest to understand consciousness









Amazing tracking shots

A long time ago, I read what was described as one of the most amazing tracking shots in film, starting at a great height and ending up underwater. (A tracking shot is a long single take with the camera moving.) It sounded incredible but I did not think I would ever see it because I did not know the name of the film and besides in those days the only way to see a film was in theaters and if you missed it on its first run you were pretty much out of luck unless they showed it again at a film festival.

For some reason, I recalled the tracking shot description a few days ago and, thanks to the internet, was able to find it. It occurs at the beginning of the 1964 Soviet Union-Cuba joint production Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba). Here it is, with the shot beginning at the 2:10 mark.

It turns out that the same film has in my opinion an even more incredible tracking shot that begins at the 1:40 mark of the clip below.

You watch in amazement and wonder "How the hell did they do that?"

It is good to remember that this film was made in the days when equipment was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today and there was no post-production computer wizardry. These were real virtuoso performances by the director and cinematographer, that required exquisite timing by everyone involved. This is why I am far more impressed with the special effects in old films like this and 2001: A Space Odyssey than in, say, The Matrix.

December 30, 2011

Spaghetti night

What is better than friends sharing food?

(Thanks to Norm.)

Murder by drone

Drones have become the weapon of choice that the Obama administration uses to kill people. Under his administration, their use has expanded far beyond what was done before.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries… But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals.

But while the administration tries to persuade us that all the people killed are 'suspected terrorists', the whole program is shrouded in secrecy and they refuse to divulge what standards are used to order the summary deaths of people in other countries. But while the publicized deaths of civilians or Pakistani troops are shrugged off as rare mistakes, there are reports that in a large number of cases, there are suspicions that they don't even know whom they have killed. And of course, everything is shrouded in secrecy, so no one can question them.

What Obama has created is an unaccountable global assassination program that murders anyone that he decides deserves to die. But at the same time, it also murders people who are not targets, people who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, including US citizens. As the Washington Post report above states, "CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives." So two were merely 'suspected' of terrorism, which is the new standard that justifies summary execution. But what about that third person who wasn't even suspected? As long as such people are poor and powerless, who cares if they die?

December 29, 2011

European Central Bank also giving big banks free money

It looks like Europe is following the lead of the US, with its equivalent of the Federal Reserve giving money to big banks at low interest rates and allowing them to buy government bonds at higher interest rates. So the European central bank is essentially borrowing back its own money, just like the Fed did here, the banks essentially risk-free easy profits.

If one wanted even more evidence of the power of the global financial oligarchy over governments, look at how they managed to oust the elected leaders of the government in Greece and Italy and replace them with unelected 'technocrats', i.e., people who would implement harsh austerity policies that squeeze the general public in order to pay back to the banks the risky loans that they gave out. Even Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most tenacious of politicians whose ability to cling on to the prime ministership was legendary, had to bow down to this superior power and resign.

December 28, 2011

How Republicans punish rich people

It seems like I have been unfairly maligning Republicans as being interested only in enriching the extremely wealthy. It turns out that they are perfectly willing to take away some of their privileges.

In addition, Senate Republican leaders would go after "millionaires and billionaires," not by raising their taxes but by making them ineligible for unemployment compensation and food stamps and increasing their Medicare premiums.

Yes, that will show them. When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein gets fired and applies for government aid to provide food for his family, won't he be surprised when he is turned down?

Former federal prosecutor calls for jury nullification of marijuana laws

A former federal prosecutor calls upon people, if they serve on a jury, to use nullification as a means to change marijuana laws. He uses the case of Julian P. Heicklen, which I have discussed before.

If you are ever on a jury in a marijuana case, I recommend that you vote "not guilty" — even if you think the defendant actually smoked pot, or sold it to another consenting adult. As a juror, you have this power under the Bill of Rights; if you exercise it, you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.

Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams.

The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror's "duty" to vote based on his or her "own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."

He points out that, "How one feels about jury nullification ultimately depends on how much confidence one has in the jury system. Based on my experience, I trust jurors a lot."

I agree with him.

December 27, 2011

James Garner

James Garner is one of my favorite actors. As a child, I was a devoted fan of his TV western series Maverick in which he played a nattily dressed gambler who, while not a coward, would go to great lengths to avoid a fight that might mess up his clothes. His later TV series like the The Rockford Files and his films built on his image of the friendly, easy-going guy who finds himself in situations that he would rather avoid but deals with it anyway. That personality was what made me like him.

So I enjoyed reading the review of his memoir in The Atlantic. As the review says:

He really is like the men he plays onscreen, even unto the modest requirements symbolized by the humble trailer that serves Jim Rockford for a residence. He is thoughtful, honest, and fundamentally gentle, although he has knocked men down when riled. On the evidence given here, one doesn't doubt that they asked for it. One doesn't doubt this guy at all.

One of Garner's great charms is that he seems like a really nice guy but it is almost impossible to know if the private personas of famous people match their public image. But the boyfriend of a friend of mine is a character actor who has acted in many films and gets the 'below the title' credit assigned to character actors who have significant roles. He is the kind of actor you recognize on the screen as having seen before but cannot easily recall the specific film. When I met him once he mentioned a film that he was working on with Garner and I asked about him and he replied that Garner in real life was even nicer than his public image.

Given that so many of one's childhood favorites later turn out to have feet of clay, it was nice in this case to have a childhood impression reinforced.

Here's the trailer for one of his films, Support Your Local Sheriff

The Ron Paul conundrum

The Republican primary race is getting truly bizarre. Under normal circumstances, someone with Mitt Romney's money, credentials, and establishment support should have by now been able to take a solid lead in the race, given the absence of any other major establishment challenger. And yet his levels of support have stayed at a mediocre 25% while successive opponents have been pecking at his heels, sometimes even overtaking him in the polls for short periods. It is clear that while the party establishment has gone one way, the party faithful is not happy with their choice.

The party establishment did not have any serious concerns about Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum winning, rightly seeing them as fringe candidates who were going nowhere. They seemed to get more concerned about the rise of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, clearly seeing them as people who could conceivably win the nomination but would flame out in the general election against an incumbent president. The attacks on Cain and Gingrich that sank the candidacy of the former and stalled and, according to some polls, reversed the rise of Gingrich have been to my mind clearly orchestrated by the Republican party establishment. This, along with the slow but steady rate of endorsements of Romney by party leaders, seem designed to send to the party's base the signal that the time for entertaining romantic notions of finding another suitor is over and they should settle down and go with the judgment of their elders.

But it is the curious candidacy of Ron Paul that is causing the party leadership to totally freak out. The problem with Paul is that he is not a loyal servant of the oligarchy. While some of his policies, such as the desire to dismantle large segments of the government, would benefit the oligarchy by ridding them of some of the oversight and regulations that get in the way of their search for unfettered profits, his articulated philosophy is not based on oligarchic subservience and this makes him an unreliable ally. What is worse, his foreign policy is totally at odds with the other leg of oligarchic interests which is to treat the world as their private property and to use the US military to bring to heel troublesome nations that seek independence of US control. And finally, his attitude that Israel is just another country that should have no special claim to US support, and that the current US policy of unwavering allegiance to it is wrong, has sent the neoconservative elements in the Republican leadership into a tizzy.

By all reasonable measures, the results of the Iowa caucuses next Tuesday should be relatively insignificant, apart from being the first official delegate-selecting process. It is an odd process in a state that is not a good mirror of the country as a whole, and in past years the winners have often not gone on to clinch the nomination. Mike Huckabee won in 2008 and faded soon after. Romney did not do well here in 2008 and initially did not put much effort into it this year. But the media has built it into this huge bellwether of public opinion and now that Gingrich is the latest anti-Romney to falter, there is a real chance the Ron Paul might win it, a possibility that is clearly giving the party leadership nightmares. His involvement with some racist newsletters in the past and the support his policies have received from extremist fringe groups are now being unearthed and publicized and you have to suspect that this is coming from sources within the Republican party who are seeking to sink his candidacy.

In case that effort fails, the message now being promulgated by some is that if Paul wins, all it would signify is that the Iowa caucuses are irrelevant. Meanwhile, others are panicking and suggesting that a Paul surge in Iowa and New Hampshire would indicate the need for the party to find a new dark horse candidate, though it is not clear who would fit the bill.

I have thought from the beginning, and still do, that Romney will be the eventual nominee. I have found that in American politics, a reliable rule of thumb is that the candidate with the most money wins. Romney has the resources to last the pace and grind out a win by steadily accumulating delegates until each of his opponents throw in the towel. Only Paul seems to have the organization to stay with him until the end. It will be an ugly win, like a football game that is decided by defense and penalties, but still a win.

The Paul candidacy raises some important general issues for those who are not partisans. When one is confronted with a politician who has a strict adherence to a particular ideology, and one does not buy into that ideology completely, one finds oneself supporting some policies and opposing others. This is the case with Ron Paul's brand of libertarianism. Broadly speaking, I like his stances on foreign policy and his libertarian attitudes towards personal rights and freedoms, laud his demands for transparency in the financial sector and the Federal Reserve, but oppose a lot of his other economic and social policies. Unlike Paul, I do not think that the elimination of government is a good thing. The government and the legal system are the only entities that are big enough to act as a counterbalance to the massive power of business over individuals, which is why we should zealously seek to make them independent agencies working for the general welfare and the rule of law.

But how does one weigh the balance and decide if one should vote for such a candidate or not? Conor Friedersdorf looks at the specific issue of the Paul newsletters and the more general issue of how to weigh the good and bad of candidates in making political choices.

It is a long and thoughtful piece.

December 26, 2011

New particle state discovered at CERN

While a lot of the science media attention has focused on the search for the Higgs boson, we should not forget that that is not sole purpose of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Its high energies allow it to do more conventional work and there is now a report of the discovery of an excited state of the bottom quark-antiquark, a consequence of the standard model of particle physics. The preprint of the paper can be read here.

Revelations about the Haditha massacre

The infamous Haditha massacre that occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, have faded from people's memories.

That morning, a military convoy of four vehicles was heading to an outpost in Haditha when one of the vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb.

Several Marines got out to attend to the wounded, including one who eventually died, while others looked for insurgents who might have set off the bomb. Within a few hours 24 Iraqis — including a 76-year-old man and children between the ages of 3 and 15 — were killed, many inside their homes.

As the reporter says, "Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted."

When reports of this got out, it was regarded as a horrifying atrocity and, as usual, was quietly buried. But two weeks ago, purely by chance, a reporter came across in a junkyard files of interviews of the people responsible for the massacre. What the interviews reveal is just how routine was the killing of civilians on this scale.

Chief Warrant Officer K. R. Norwood, who received reports from the field on the day of the killings and briefed commanders on them, testified that 20 dead civilians was not unusual.

General Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar Province, said he did not feel compelled to go back and examine the events because they were part of a continuing pattern of civilian deaths.

"It happened all the time, not necessarily in MNF-West all the time, but throughout the whole country," General Johnson testified, using a military abbreviation for allied forces in western Iraq.

One can only imagine the bitterness and hatred engendered in the relatives of those massacred in this way.

December 25, 2011

Reason's Greetings…

… and best wishes for the New Year to all the readers of this blog.

spiritofchristmas.jpg

Since my family is visiting over the holiday week, blogging will be lighter than usual. Regular blogging will resume on Tuesday, January 4, 2012.

December 24, 2011

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

If you are sick of cheesy holiday music, here is some relief, played on a glass harp.

The oligarchy's feelings are hurt

The oligarchy, so long accustomed to do their looting in peace, has been surprised by the sudden turn in the tide against their rapaciousness and the successful adoption of the Occupy movement's "We are the 99%" slogan now being used against them. You would have thought that they would be smart enough to lay low and hope that the storm passes.

But no, some of them are whining about how their feelings are hurt and contemptuously dismissing their critics as being 'imbeciles' and that those who are so poor that they pay little or no taxes have no right to complain because they have 'no skin in the game'.

Matt Taibbi points out that the reverse is true, that it is the oligarchy that has no skin in the game because are not rooted in any place and thus have no sense of obligation to a geographical community that ordinary people have.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn't even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It's called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don't do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn't take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life's savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Nobody with real skin in the game, who had any kind of stake in our collective future, would do any of those things. Or, if a person did do those things, you'd at least expect him to have enough shame not to whine to a Bloomberg reporter when the rest of us complained about it.

The oligarchy's open display of the depth of their contempt for those not in their class is quite astonishing. I actually think this is a good thing and should be encouraged. The more this Marie Antoinette attitude is put on full public display, the more likely they are to get their comeuppance. As Taibbi ends his piece, "Unbelievable. Merry Christmas, bankers. And good luck getting that message out."

December 23, 2011

Tebow or not Tebow

Although I have stopped following football, I have been intrigued by the story of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow who frequently drops to one knee in prayer during games (this act of genuflection has even acquired the label 'to Tebow' or 'Tebowing') and even has biblical verses painted on his face. So much for Jesus's admonition "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)

Of course, such ostentatious displays of piety cry out for parody and Saturday Night Live duly obliges.

'Tis the season to be shopping

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Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The main thesis of Steven Pinker's latest book is that violence has declined dramatically over time and that we are now living in the most peaceful time in history, and to suggest reasons for this. The decline has not been uniformly steady but has a saw-tooth pattern of periodic upticks of violence followed by steeper drops leading to an overall decline over time.

This is not a proposition that is obvious since many people despair of the state of the world now with wars between nations, civil wars, genocides, and the brutal suppression of dissent seemingly taking place all over the globe. It is in order to counter this perception that Pinker has to write such a long book (running to nearly 700 pages even without the endnotes and citations), amassing the data and evidence and arguments necessary whenever one is making a counter-intuitive case. So the book is heavy with numbers and graphs that could easily become tedious except that Pinker has a deft writing style that lifts the reader whenever the going gets tough. The book has sparked considerable interest and on his website Pinker has responded to some of the reactions and criticisms.

Pinker looks at all manner of violence from all kinds of conflicts, from wars, homicides, slavery, genocides, rapes, rebellions, and others as a percentage of the population at the time they occurred. In other words, he is using as his measure of violence not the actual number of casualties but the probability that an individual living at that particular time was likely to suffer violence and death at the hands of another.

Of the many charts, graphs, and tables in the book, the centerpiece is undoubtedly the table on page 195 that ranks the twenty one worst conflicts in history in terms of the absolute number of deaths and also in terms of its population-adjusted rank. While World War II had a death toll of 55 million that is the largest ever for a single identifiable conflict, when calculated as a fraction of the global population, it barely makes it into the list of the top ten worst conflicts of all time, being just number 9. The eight that rank above it involve some events that most people likely have never heard of, at least in the west. The An Lushan revolt and civil war that took place in China in the 8th century is the worst. The deaths caused by the Middle East and Atlantic slave trades are at #3 and #8 respectively while the annihilation of Native Americans is #7. World War I with its 15 million dead comes in at #16.

The reason for this distorted perception is that people tend to magnify events that they or their immediate ancestors have personal experience with, and discount others. So for us, relatively recent conflicts such as World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, the Rwandan genocide, the Stalin purges, etc. seem to dominate history when, when looked at in terms of the number of deaths as a ratio of population, some of them don't even register as significant sources of casualties.

People point to the two World Wars of the twentieth century with their terrible loss of life and ask how it can be that the twentieth century is not the worst century in history for violence. Pinker points out that although World Wars I and II were bad, they both occurred in the first half of the century and that the second half had no major conflicts, so the century average was lowered.

In seeking explanations for the decline in violence, Pinker, echoing Peter Singer in his classic work The Expanding Circle, invokes various revolutions that have led to an expansion in our circle of sympathy, so that we now view more categories of people to be like us instead of as the 'other', and now view as deplorable acts done to them that might have been acceptable in the past. The Age of Reason in the 17th century, followed by the Enlightenment towards the end of the 18th, leading to a humanitarian revolution in the 19th, followed by the various rights revolutions of the 20th century (civil, women's, children's, gay, animal) all led to a rise in the value attached to life and steps being taken to curb violence towards those formerly marginalized groups. While the improvement has been uneven, the overall trend is clear. These measures, combined with the increased state monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the increase in commerce between nations, greater cosmopolitanism, the rise in the status and role of women, and the increased application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs have been major factors in the reduction in the use of violence to resolve conflicts.

So why is it that so many still persist in thinking that things are really bad now and yearn for the 'good old days'? The decline in violence can have the perverse effect of making things seem to be bad now when in fact they have objectively got better. For example, we are now rightly outraged about the harsher prison sentences that African Americans get when compared with white people who commit the same crimes. And while this injustice needs to be corrected, we should not overlook the fact that not so long ago African Americans would have experienced summary and often lethal 'justice' at the hands of a mob for the most trivial of offenses and few would have spoken out in protest. So we have come a long way even as we have yet some ways to go.

While Pinker's analysis of the data showing a decline in violence and his arguments as to the reasons are persuasive, the book's main weakness weakness lies in his political analysis. The Canadian-born writer, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard, tends to view politics through a western prism and accepts much of conventional wisdom about political developments. While he does not spare the US and colonial powers for their historical contribution to violence, when he reaches for graphic recent examples to illustrate his points, he tends to pick on Nazis and Communism and other convetional villains and overlook similar examples that are closer to home. For example, when looking at the role of ideology in making leaders pursue policies that result in the deaths of thousands of people, his examples are of Stalin and Mao. But he could well ask the same question of president Truman and his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Lyndon Johnson's decision to carpet bomb Vietnam with conventional and chemical weapons that resulted in massive deaths and destruction and long—term harm to subsequent generations. As another example, when trying to understand what might make a soldier gun down a group of defenseless innocent people, his example is of a Nazi soldier massacring a group of Jews during the Holocaust. He does not mention My Lai, though that would also be apropos and is more recent.

It is easy for those who care about the state of the world and what we are bequeathing to future generations to succumb to a sense of despair and think that violence and cruelty are indelible features of our existence that have always existed and will always exist and may be getting even worse as our capacity to harm others increases with the development of more sophisticated weaponry. What this book argues is that while serious problems and conflicts still exist and we are by no means living in a utopia, such deep pessimism is unwarranted. Things are better now than they have ever been and can be yet better in the future as long as we continue to expand the circle of concern to include more and more people within its ambit.

Pinker is careful not to make predictions for the future since who knows what might happen but argues the future can be bright. This book's main virtue is that it provides hope that is not based on wishful thinking but on data.

In a TED talk on this topic, delivered in 2007, Pinker outlines the main theses that were later developed in the book.








Although long, this is a book that is definitely worth reading and having on your shelf because of the wealth of data that it gathers together between its covers. It is an encyclopedia of the history of violence and thus, at the very least, will be a useful reference work.

December 22, 2011

Is a single payer health system on the way?

I have in the past harshly criticized president Obama and the Democratic party for the way they excluded the single payer and public options in the health care debate as a favor to the health insurance industries and foisted on us a complicated health care reform package in the Affordable Care Act that does not address in any fundamental way some of the key problems of cost and access.

Now comes along an analysis by Rick Ungar that says that buried in that health care reform act was a time bomb that went off on December 2, 2011 that will destroy the private health insurance industry as we currently have it and set in motion a series of events that will inevitably lead to single payer. The key, he says, is

the provision of the law, called the medical loss ratio, that requires health insurance companies to spend 80% of the consumers' premium dollars they collect—85% for large group insurers—on actual medical care rather than overhead, marketing expenses and profit. Failure on the part of insurers to meet this requirement will result in the insurers having to send their customers a rebate check representing the amount in which they underspend on actual medical care.

So, can private health insurance companies manage to make a profit when they actually have to spend premium receipts taking care of their customers' health needs as promised?

Not a chance - and they know it. Indeed, we are already seeing the parent companies who own these insurance operations fleeing into other types of investments. They know what we should all know – we are now on an inescapable path to a single-payer system for most Americans and thank goodness for it.

Ungar has a follow up post where he tries to address some of the objections that people have raised regarding his prediction.

Interestingly, the argument most often offered up in the effort to shoot down my conclusions was the position that most health insurers are already meeting, or very close to meeting, the medical loss requirements. As a result, these naysayers argued, the new MLR rules are really no big deal and there is no reason for me to suggest that the HHS regulations would have the dramatic impact I have predicted.

Many were also quick to add that the stock prices for these health insurers remain very healthy, indicating that shareholders in these companies clearly do not share my dire predictions—and the shareholders certainly should know.

But if that is the case then why, Ungar asks, are so many states requesting a waiver from these requirements from the department of Health and Human Services (HHS)?

The answer is clear. It is because the method the health insurance companies have been using to calculate their MLR - effectively throwing everything they can into the classification of an actual medical expense - is no longer going to fly and the health insurance companies know this is going to be a big problem for them.

While shareholders may be slow to pick up what is happening, likely the result of health insurance company efforts to downplay the impact of the medical care ratio requirements, the evidence makes it clear that the days of private health insurance are numbered.

Ungar points out that the Department of Health and Human Services refused a request by the state of Florida for a waiver that would prevent the insurance companies from having to return $89 million to their subscribers under the MLR requirement. Two days ago, a similar request for a waiver by the governor of Michigan was also turned down, making it the sixth state to be so denied. Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, Kentucky, Delaware, North Dakota, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have also requested waivers. Rob Collier reports that Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire have been approved while Iowa and Kentucky were given partial waivers for a limited time. North Dakota, Indiana and Louisiana were rejected. The list of states applying for waivers and the outcomes can be seen here.

But if single payer is the ultimate outcome, was this the intention all along? Or is this some unintended but welcome consequence of the complex legislation? The reason this matters is that if it is an unintended consequence, then the insurance industry, Congress, and the Obama administration will try to rewrite the legislation to prevent it. I have a hard time believing that the health industry with its massive lobbying efforts and a Congress and White House that is subservient to them, would not be careful to preserve their interests.

I wish I could be as optimistic as Ungar. But I am not going to allow my hopes to be raised too much.

December 21, 2011

Congress forgets how to pass a law

As Congress goes through yet another of these phony crises and seems deadlocked, this time over passing the payroll tax cut extension, the Onion News Network wonders whether some other factor is at play.

Why this remake?

The new film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is being released today.

I have not read the books but saw the Swedish trilogy of films and they were pretty good. They are also recent, all being released in 2009 so I don't understand the reasons for this remake. The new version also takes place in Sweden and seems to have the same plot with the same characters and names, and the trailer seems awfully similar to the original, so I am baffled as to why it was done.

The only benefit seems to be to not have subtitles. I know that some people don't like them but they don't bother me in the least. In fact, after the film is over, I often cannot recall whether the film was in English or I was reading subtitles. Subtitles can also be an advantage because you don't miss mumbled words and the spoken words do not get drowned by ambient sounds, not an insignificant factor when you are watching at home, and your dog can get excited by seeing a squirrel and let loose a fusillade of barks.

Maybe the reason is purely commercial. The books have been huge bestsellers and by making pretty much the same film but in English with a well-known star like Daniel Craig, Hollywood hopes to cash in on the phenomenon and make a bundle.

Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some by Glenn Greenwald

This is an infuriating book. There were many times during last weekend when I was reading it that I wanted to hurl it against the wall though I am not by nature prone to such dramatic displays of emotion.

The reason is not the usual one, which is that one hates the book. It is because the story that Greenwald tells, in his typically direct and lawyerly style, about how the US has steadily deteriorated to become a nation to which the labels 'oligarchy', 'plutocracy', and 'banana republic' have become so apropos, was so infuriating. I am old enough and follow politics closely enough that almost all of the individual cases that Greenwald talks about are familiar to me, at least in general terms. But to see it all carefully laid out end to end, to see the steady and deliberate and knowing erosion of the rule of law, to see the corruption and hypocrisy that is at the core of the government-business-media oligarchy that runs the US, to see the cheerleading for this process by the establishment media all the while relentlessly preening themselves on being watchdogs, is to realize how terrible is the current state of affairs.

The subtitle of the book How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful pretty much says it all. He points out that equality before the law is one of the bedrock principles upon which the US was built, and indeed is seen as the basis for any just society, but that ideal has been dramatically undermined in the last four decades. This does not mean that there is, or has ever been, perfect equality in the past. As he writes:

Wealth and power have always conferred substantial advantages, and it is thus unsurprising that throughout history the rich and well-connected have enjoyed superior treatment under the law. In the past, those advantages were broadly seen as failures of justice and ruefully acknowledged as shortcomings of the legal system. Today, however, in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all. To hear our politicians and our press tell it, the conclusion is inescapable: we're far better off when political and financial elites-and they alone-are shielded from criminal accountability.

It has become a virtual consensus among the elites that their members are so indispensable to the running of American society that vesting them with immunity from prosecution-even for the most egregious crimes-is not only in their interest but in our interest, too. Prosecutions, courtrooms, and prisons, it's hinted-and sometimes even explicitly stated-are for the rabble, like the street-side drug peddlers we occasionally glimpse from our car windows, not for the political and financial leaders who manage our nation and fuel our prosperity. (p. 15)

He starts his story with the pardoning of Richard Nixon in 1974, where the novel idea was put forward that 'for the good of the country' the president should not be subjected to prosecution for his crimes and that 'he had suffered enough' merely because he had to resign and had his reputation damaged. At that time, some of Nixon's close aides were prosecuted and in fact served jail time. But the circle of immunity was expanded during the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration when even other officials who committed crimes were pardoned. The pattern of each president not prosecuting the crimes of its predecessor has accelerated right through to Obama and for good reason: that tacit expectation of immunity from their successor gives each president license to break the law as and when they see fit.

The next major erosion of the rule of law occurred in the past decade with the expansion of immunity to the private sector, by the granting of retroactive immunity from prosecution to the giant telecommunications companies for their collusion with the government in the illegal wiretapping of Americans. We recently saw elite immunity under the Obama administration on full display as his administration has engaged in a systematic avoidance of prosecutions in the case of the financial crisis of 2008 and the foreclosure frauds of 2010 (still continuing) where, as Jeff Connaughton describes, not a single senior executive has gone to jail or even been criminally indicted, the only punishments consisting of the occasional levying of fines to companies (without even requiring an admission of wrongdoing) that are trivial to these giant institutions and can simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Greenwald says that the US has become the very sort of nation that its founders thought that they had escaped.

To be sure, this dynamic has prevailed in imperial capitals for centuries. And it is what explains much of official Washington. The crux of political power (the White House) is the royal court, the most powerful leader (the American president) is the monarch, and his highest and most trusted aides are the gatekeepers. Those who are graced with admission and access to the royal court-including "journalists"-are grateful to those who grant them that privilege. They are equally grateful to the political culture on which their special status, privileges, and wealth depend. Naturally, the journalists' impulse is to protect those who bestowed such favors on them and to promote the culture that sustains them, even as they sentimentally invoke their supposed role as watchdogs over the powerful-a role that they long ago ceased to perform. (p. 47)

Greenwald says that the revolving door between the government and elite sectors of the private economy ensures that there is continuity in the corruption.

It's vital to understand how this process truly works. People like [Director of National Intelligence] Mike McConnell don't really move from public office to the private sector and back again; that implies more separation than actually exists. Rather, the U.S. government and industry interests essentially form one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity-with a public division and a private one. When someone like McConnell goes from a top private sector position to a top government post in the same field, it's more like an intracorporate reassignment than it is like changing employers. When McConnell serves as DNI he's simply in one division of this entity, and when he's at Booz Allen he is in another. It's precisely the same way that Goldman Sachs officials endlessly move in and out of the Treasury Department and other government positions with financial authority, or the way that health care and oil executives move in and out of government agencies charged with regulating those fields. (p. 75)

Just think about how this cycle works. People like Rubin, Summers, Patterson, and Gensler shuffle back and forth between the public and private sectors, taking turns as needed with their GOP counterparts. When in government, they ensure that laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall Street firms, abolishing most regulatory safeguards that keep those behemoths in check. When the electoral tide turns against them, they return to those very firms and collect millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented (or failed to implement) when they were in charge. Then, when their party returns to power, back they go into government, where they use their influence to ensure that the cycle keeps going. (p. 117-118)

The only people who are punished with jail are those who are stupid enough to swindle those of their same class or are more powerful than them (Rod Blagojevich, Bernie Madoff) or those celebrities who can be made an example of (Martha Stewart). It will be interesting to see what happens to Jon Corzine who has an impeccable elite pedigree (former Democratic US Senator and governor of New Jersey and, most importantly, former head of Goldman Sachs, the firm that pretty much controls US financial policy) for his role in the MF Global debacle. Will we be told that he has 'suffered enough' and should be free of prosecution or will he be made into a sacrificial lamb, in order to patch up the crumbling facade that no one is above the law?

We have now reached the stage where a small but powerful elite class now feels immune from prosecution for crimes, while at the same time the screws are being increasingly tightened on everyone else with more and more punitive laws stringently applied to those who are not of the elite. It is no accident that increased elite immunity from crimes has run parallel to the rapid growth of incarceration of the powerless. The rest of us are increasingly enmeshed in so many laws that we are all likely felons whether we knowingly commit crimes or not, and thus in danger of a vindictive prosecution if we should step out of line. Prosecuting and jailing the people who merely protest or commit low-level crimes has been a boon for the private prison industry, which has been booming in these hard times.

As Kozinski and Tseytlin note, anyone who has ever misfiled their taxes (even inadvertently), or consumed any illegal drugs (including marijuana), or bet on a sporting event with a bookie, or lied to a government bureaucrat, or even just performed their job poorly (if it's an occupation regulated by the federal government) has committed a federal offense for which they could be sent to prison-and for which many of their fellow citizens are now actually imprisoned. Similarly, the criminologists Beckett and Sasson report that "in 2000, police arrested more than 2 million individuals for such 'consensual' or 'victimless' crimes as curfew violations, prostitution, gambling, drug possession, vagrancy, and public drunkenness. Fewer than one in five of all arrests in that year involved people accused of the more serious 'index' crimes" such as assault, larceny, rape, or homicide. It should hardly be controversial that a system of criminal law that theoretically renders a substantial portion-if not an outright majority-of the citizenry subject to long prison terms is both excessive and unjust. (p. 234-235)

Observe how zealously the government aids the music and film industry in the prosecution of 'internet piracy'. Note how the loaded word 'piracy' is freely used when dealing with the kinds of people who do this kind of thing on a retail basis while much more benign terms are used to describe the wholesale criminal actions of the elite.

Where, in all this, are our erstwhile watchdogs of democracy, the media? They have long been coopted and are now the running dogs of the oligarchy, faithfully serving their interests in return for the scraps that fall their way. Their role is to provide distraction and entertainment, not news.

In this world, it is perfectly fine to say that a president is inept or even somewhat corrupt. A titillating, tawdry sex scandal, such as the Bill Clinton brouhaha, can be fun, even desirable as a way of keeping entertainment levels high. Such revelations are all just part of the political cycle. But to acknowledge that our highest political officials are felons (which is what people are, by definition, who break our laws) or war criminals (which is what people are, by definition, who violate the laws of war) is to threaten the system of power, and that is unthinkable. Above all else, media figures are desperate to maintain the current power structure, as it is their role within it that provides them with prominence, wealth, and self-esteem. Their prime mandate then becomes protecting and defending Washington, which means attacking anyone who would dare suggest that the government has been criminal at its core.

The members of the political and media establishment do not join forces against the investigations and prosecutions because they believe that nothing bad was done. On the contrary, they resist accountability precisely because they know there was serious wrongdoing-and they know they bear part of the culpability for it. (p. 220-221)

Greenwald shows how people like Joe Klein of Time and Richard Cohen and David Broder of The Washington Post all excuse high-level criminality and vociferously denounce any efforts to apply the law to their friends in high places while simultaneously righteously demanding that justice be strictly applied to ordinary people for petty crimes. And these people are 'liberal' journalists, supposedly on the side of the downtrodden. Greenwald (correctly, in my opinion) focuses on the collusion of Democrats in this corruption, thus disabusing us of the notion that it is only the Republicans and conservatives who are the servants of the oligarchy. It is only when people realize that the rot is deep and bipartisan, that the labels that politicians and business leaders and mainstream media pin on each other are meaningless, that we can expect to see real pressure for reform.

How is it that people allow such things to happen? The pattern is always the same:

Indeed, those who abuse state power virtually always follow the same playbook. By initially targeting new abuses at groups that are sufficiently demonized, they guarantee that few will object. But abuses of power rarely, if ever, remain confined to these demonized groups. Rather, degraded principles of justice, once embraced in limited circumstances, in time inevitably come to be applied more broadly. (p. 267)

This kind of oligarchic takeover of a country inevitably leads to greater and greater inequality and injustice and at some point even a passive population like that in the US will be stirred to anger and revolt. A hard reckoning awaits us.

My one quibble with the book is that Greenwald does not provide sources and citations for his information, which is surprising since his blog posts conscientiously link to source material. Providing such citations is a tedious chore for an author but valuable to the reader and if the book goes through another edition I hope he adds them.

This is a book that will make you angry and should make you angry. But it is also a book that must be read widely for the valuable information it provides. I urge you to buy it and read it and encourage others to do so.

December 20, 2011

Mitt Romney loses one veteran's vote

At a recent campaign stop at a coffee house in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney spotted a man wearing a veteran's cap. Since candidates love to pander to veterans, Romney glommed on to him but it was not quite what he expected. Listen to what the Vietnam veteran says after Romney leaves.

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Baby Jesus gets company

For fifty years, Loudon County courthouse in Leesburg, VA had just a crèche and a Christmas tree on the grounds.

[I]n 2009, a courthouse-grounds committee, concerned about a growing number of requests to use the public space, decided that Loudoun should ban all unattended displays on the property.

Public outcry was fierce and emotional. Residents poured into the county boardroom wearing Santa hats and religious pins, pleading with county leaders to respect their freedoms of speech and religion. The board ultimately decided to allow up to 10 holiday displays on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants got in line.

You can imagine what happened. Similar to what happened in Santa Monica when public spaces were allotted by lottery, many people got into the spirit of the season.

Then came the atheists. And the Jedis. And the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- each with its own decorations. A skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society's obsession with consumerism. Nearby, a pine tree stood adorned with atheist testimonials.

Flying Spaghetti Monster devotees are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It's a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, its manger surrounded by an army of pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: "Touched by an Angelhair."

Will Christians fight back next year to regain exclusive rights to put up displays on public property? Stay tuned.

Israel, US, and WikiLeaks

Bradley Manning, alleged Wikileaks leaker, is finally getting his day in court, even if it is just a military court that does not allow for the full exercise of rights that civilian courts have.

One overlooked aspect of the WikiLeaks releases is what it says about US subservience to Israel's interests. For example, recall the failure of the talks last year between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. M. J. Rosenberg describes how the US government, both the White House and the Congress, is controlled by the Israel lobby led by AIPAC, and says that "here is only one reason that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed. It is the power of the "pro-Israel lobby" (led by AIPAC) which prevents the United States from saying publicly what it says privately: that resolution of a conflict which is so damaging to US interests is consistently being blocked by the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and its determination to maintain the occupation."

Israel has shown that it can extort what it wants from the US. Last year, the US requested that there be a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories. Israel refused, even rejecting the US offer of a bribe of three billion dollars in return for which Israel would simply have a moratorium on settlement for just 90 days. And despite being publicly humiliated time and again, the US government continues to be servile to Israel.

Apart from being one of the major enablers for these Israeli policies and lavishing the country with huge amounts of aid that enable Israelis to have a high standard of living, the US also provides it with diplomatic cover in the international arena. The US even vetoes UN resolutions on the settlements even when the resolutions are exactly in line with publicly stated US policy. WikiLeaks revealed that the US had secret deal with Israel to expand settlements even as they publicly decry it.

Is there any more glaring indication of the fecklessness of US political leaders and their subservience to Israel? But one notable feature is how few of the leaked WikiLeaks cables deal with Israel. Israel Shamir suggests that this is part of the western government-media subservience to the Israel lobby, which we also saw demonstrated with how they downplayed reports that the US, French, and German leaders view the Israeli prime minister as an incorrigible liar.

The Guardian and the New York Times, Le Monde and Spiegel are quite unable to publish a story unacceptable to Israel. They may pen a moderately embarrassing piece of fluff, or a slightly critical technical analysis in order to convince discerning readers of their objectivity. They may even let an opponent air his or her views every once in a blue moon. But they could never publish a story really damaging to Israel. This is true for all mainstream media.

Furthermore, no American ambassador would ever send a cable really unacceptable to Israel – unless he intended to retire the next month. Yet even supposing this kamikaze ambassador would send the cable, the newspapers would overlook it.

Even with thousands of secret cables about Israel in their hands, the mainstream media delays and prevaricates. They don't want anyone to yell at them. That is why they have postponed publishing the articles. Once forced by circumstance or competition to publish the contents of the cables, you can bet they'll twist the revelations into toady headlines and bury the truth in the final paragraph.

Robert Fisk comments on one aspect of Middle East politics gleaned from the few WikiLeaks releases:

It's not that US diplomats don't understand the Middle East; it's just that they've lost all sight of injustice. Vast amounts of diplomatic literature prove that the mainstay of Washington's Middle East policy is alignment with Israel, that its principal aim is to encourage the Arabs to join the American-Israeli alliance against Iran, that the compass point of US policy over years and years is the need to tame/bully/crush/oppress/ ultimately destroy the power of Iran.

There is virtually no talk (so far, at least) of illegal Jewish colonial settlements on the West Bank, of Israeli "outposts", of extremist Israeli "settlers" whose homes now smallpox the occupied Palestinian West Bank - of the vast illegal system of land theft which lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian war. And incredibly, all kinds of worthy US diplomats grovel and kneel before Israel's demands - many of them apparently fervent supporters of Israel - as Mossad bosses and Israel military intelligence agents read their wish-list to their benefactors.

As long as the US continues to be subservient to Israeli interests and impervious to justice, there will be no resolution of the Middle East conflict.

December 19, 2011

Matt Damon goes undercover to promote reusable water bottles to children

Happy Anniversary to Baxter, the Wonder Dog!

He became part of our family six years ago today and is resting up before the partying in his honor begins.

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Some thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens undoubtedly died well, by which I mean that he faced his terminal illness with dignity, not falling into either one of the common twin traps that snare people who are told they have a serious terminal illness, that of maudlin sentimentality of the 'why me?' variety or fake bravado that he would defeat the cancer somehow when all before him had failed. He was above all, a writer, for whom the compulsion to pour words out was unstoppable. Not for him the idea that his last days should be spent in doing those things he had had no time for before. He was apparently working on an essay until the end, even when he was so weak that he could barely drag his IV drip with to the chair and would nod off periodically and could barely hit the keys. One has to admire that.

The only book I read of his was God is Not Great and my review was decidedly mixed. But there was no doubt that his debating skills in favor of the atheist cause were definitely something I welcomed. He had a quick wit, an easy facility with words, was widely read, and seemed to have a prodigious memory, all of which come in handy when engaged in the kinds of polemical battles he seemed to relish.

It must be said, however, that his other politics in the latter part of his life were atrocious. He seemed to have bought the entire neoconservative package, demonstrating an enthusiasm for wars against Muslim countries that was appalling. Critics claimed that he was a social climber, eager to move in elite American political and social circles and that his entry ticket to that world was to join in the jingoistic hysteria that followed the events of September 11, 2001. Recall that in those days, to decry the reaction to lash out at perceived enemies was seen as irrelevant and not serious at best and borderline treasonous at worst.

Since I am not of that world, I am in no position to judge if that charge is accurate, but I thought that this remembrance of him by Alexander Cockburn was worth linking to.

Film review: Hot Coffee

I just saw Hot Coffee, an excellent and disturbing award-winning documentary about the concerted effort by big corporations that, under the banner of 'tort reform', seek to deprive people of their right to sue them for the damage they inflict. See the film's website for more information and for the interview that director Susan Saladoff had with Stephen Colbert, that I also linked to earlier.

Here's the trailer for the film.

The film takes its title from the famous case in which Stella Liebeck, an elderly woman, sued McDonalds because of the injuries she suffered when she spilled their hot coffee over her legs. A jury awarded her $160,000 in damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. McDonalds and other big corporations exploited this case to create a vast mythology about 'jackpot justice' in which they alleged that people filed frivolous lawsuits against big corporations and doctors in the hope that they would strike it rich, and that the cost of defending against these charges and paying the judgments was passed on to the rest of us. The corporations successfully appealed to the crocodile mentality in people that resents what seems like undeserved good fortune to people who are just like them but in which they do not share, and the case became the punch line for comedians.

The corporations have used that case to steadily encroach on the rights of people by instituting caps on damages, forcing binding arbitration on people so that they cannot sue in court but must have their case decided by an arbitrator who is picked by the very corporation that harmed them, and pouring money into judicial races so that any convictions that people obtain are overturned by higher courts and the laws depriving people of their day in court are ruled constitutional. The film shows how the oligarchy works, creating a pseudo-legal system that is friendly to business and government and conspires against ordinary people.

The documentary starts by exposing the central myths of the hot coffee case, which was that it involved a doddering old woman who spilled coffee on herself while stupidly drinking while driving. In actual fact, Liebeck was an active and robust woman who had just retired a couple of months earlier and was the passenger in the car that was parked in the lot when the event occurred. But what was shocking to me was the scale of the burns suffered by the woman. They were horrendous and required major skin grafts. The photos of the injury were horrifying and I had to turn away. What was worse, McDonalds had received many previous complaints about their hot coffee but had done nothing.

The idea of having some caps on damages seems reasonable to most people because of the perception that juries are emotional idiots who pick some number out of a hat out of excessive sympathy for the victim. The film examines a case in which a child (one of a pair of twins) was born with brain damage because of medical malpractice by a doctor who had had previous problems. The jury award carefully took into account the amount of money the family would need to provide a lifetime of care to their child but this amount was arbitrarily reduced because of the caps laws passed by the state legislature, which means that Medicaid (i.e., taxpayers) will have to foot part of the bill while the doctors and hospitals escape the full consequences.

In the case of the damage caused by binding arbitration, the film looked at the case of a young woman who was gang raped by her fellow Halliburton employees in Iraq and then when she complained was locked in a storage trailer and was released only because her father in the US got their congressman involved. But she could not sue Halliburton for damages because her employment contract had a binding arbitration clause that she was unaware of and she had to fight hard just to get her case heard in court.

The film says that many of the contracts we now enter into, such as with our credit card companies, include such clauses in the fine print, when we originally sign up or in the modifications to our agreements that we get in the mail and which hardly anyone reads. Arbitrators overwhelmingly rule in favor of the companies. It is not hard to see why. The arbitrators are picked and paid by the company and make their living by deciding these cases and those who rule against the companies find that they rarely get asked again. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

The film also examines the case of how business interests pour money into electing judges who will be sympathetic to them, in particular waging a relentless campaign to defeat a Mississippi Supreme Court judge who was deemed to be not subservient enough.

The filmmakers interviewed some of the jurors in the hot coffee case and they explained how they weighed the evidence and arrived at their verdict and the size of the judgment. Rather than being stupid people who picked a large number at random, they carefully weighed how much blame should be borne by the woman and how much by McDonalds and what punitive damages would be appropriate to send McDonalds the message that they had acted irresponsibly by cavalierly ignoring the warnings about its product. They settled on two days worth of coffee sales revenue.

I have been called for jury duty several times and although I have never been picked for an actual case, I have spent a lot of time in the jury poolroom talking with my fellow potential jurors. These are just ordinary people from all walks of life and for some of whom it was a real hardship to serve on a jury because they lost wages. But I was impressed at how seriously they took their task and they confirmed my belief that I would much rather put my fate in the hands of a jury of my peers than in those of an arbitrator or judge, however well-educated or experienced they are.

December 18, 2011

Grandparents

Strange as it may seem to some people, gay couples react to the news of becoming grandparents pretty much the same way as heterosexual couples do.

Explain to me again why we should not let gay people adopt children?

Lawrence Lessig on campaign finance reform

The corrupting influence of money on politics in the US is pervasive and entrenched. I had never found any proposed solution that satisfied me. The catch with federally funded campaigns, which is favored by many reformists, is that while it might reduce the influence of lobbyists and big campaign donors, it also tends to favor the two established parties. Until those two parties face a revolt or otherwise genuine threat to their entrenched dominance, there is little incentive for them to not be corrupt.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear Lawrence Lessig on The Daily Show suggest a reform that might actually work. I have not read his book Republic, Lost: How money corrupts Congress - and a plan to stop it but his idea is that the government would refund the first $50 of people's taxes to them in the form of a voucher that they could donate to any political campaign. In addition, each person would be allowed to donate up to $100 of their own money.

The catch is that this would require a constitutional amendment since the Supreme Court has ruled that money is a form of speech and steadily removed restrictions on campaign contributions.

The interview is well worth watching. In the first part, Lessig describes how the current system corrupts politics and in the second, he discusses his solution, as well as some other options that modern technology allows.

Part 1:

Part 2:

December 17, 2011

Yet another stupid controversy

The Daily Show on the All-American Muslim silliness.


Extending the payroll tax cut

Currently there is a congressional debate on whether to extend the payroll tax cut on Social Security. The Republican party, which wants to extend the Bush era tax cuts on the rich, ridiculously argues that those cuts would pay for themselves and do not require expenditure offsets. But it argues the reverse in the case of payroll tax cuts, requiring that the cuts, which benefit largely the middle class, be paid for by cuts in expenditure elsewhere. Their devotion to serving the interests of only the rich has never been so glaringly exposed.

I initially opposed the cuts in the payroll tax for three reasons. 1) If the economy needed to be stimulated, I preferred the government sending everyone earning below a fixed amount a check for the average amount of the cut, similar to what George W. Bush did. I felt that the effects of a payroll tax cut would be too subtle. 2) Because the tax is a fixed fraction of income up to a certain limit, the cut gives more back to higher income earners than lower ones. 3) It would cause a deficit in the Social Security trust fund that would be used by opponents to undermine the Social Security program.

It turns out that I was wrong on the third point. The legislation that cut the Social Security tax also required the government to make up the losses to the trust fund from general tax revenues. This is still problematic because it further breaks down the wall between the trust fund and general revenues and drags Social Security into budget debates by enabling opponents to claim that it is adding to the budget deficit. But at least on paper, the trust fund revenues are not affected.

December 16, 2011

Newt Gingrich's solution to poverty

The discussions by Larry Wilmore and Jon Stewart on race on The Daily Show are always funny and insightful.

The Republican debate

Once again, The Guardian's Richard Adams spares me from having to watch last night's Republican debate by providing an amusing live blog.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

He finally succumbed to throat cancer. You can read a remembrance here.

Unlike in the olden days when religious people could (and would) make up stories about nonbelievers having deathbed conversions, nowadays such a fraud is hard to pull off. It is clear that Hitchens had no use for such fairy stories right up the end.

Here he is talking about the Jesus myth.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

Animals and me

I am not a fan of violence, even of the fake kind in films and TV. I do not seek violence out and an advisory on a film that it contains a lot of it is enough to make me want to give it a miss. I never watch any films in the slasher/horror genre. But I can stomach film violence if I have to. I have seen my share of cinematic deaths and injury and bloodshed and survived, and usually forget about them soon afterwards. In more mainstream films, if there is a violent scene or two and I can anticipate one coming, I can turn away. I recently saw the trilogy of films that began with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and although they had some pretty rough stuff from time to time, I enjoyed the films enough that I could get through those scenes.

Sometimes it is too much, though. The film Pulp Fiction sickened me because the violence seemed just gratuitous and turned me off Quentin Tarantino films forever. I also went to see the film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover which had some pretty gross scenes early on which I sat through but towards the end it was so clear that it was heading towards a ghastly denouement and I simply got up and left, the only time that I have actually left a movie theater before the end.

But there is something that I cannot stand and that is violence towards animals. Any hint that animals are going to be shown treated cruelly is enough to ruin the film for me. Even the portrayal of the natural death of an animal upsets me. If animals have to die, I definitely want them to die peacefully and off-screen. This is true even in books. I read a novel some years ago that had one scene in which a dog is treated cruelly. That scene remains in my mind long after the rest of the novel has been forgotten.

In nature films, the only animal video clips I will watch or link to are those with happy outcomes but even then there are limits. Sometime ago, a blog reader sent me a link to a video clip of a baby wildebeest in the wild that was being dragged underwater by crocodiles until it was saved by the collective action of the herd. It was a happy ending but watching the baby struggling for survival was too much for me to watch again and I never linked to it.

The funny thing is that I am not an animal lover, as the term is popularly understood. I did not even have a pet as a child nor do I recall ever asking for one. The first dog in my life arrived when I was over forty years of age and I consented only because my children's pleas for one finally overcame my strenuous objections. I definitely do not gush over animals. When I encounter them, I treat them as I would when I meet children for the first time, friendly but keeping a slight distance. I do not rescue strays, visit and help out at animal shelters, join organizations dedicated to protecting them, or do any of the countless other things that true animal lovers would do. I even eat meat, despite knowing of the widespread use of horrendous factory farming practices in the US. And yet, news items about people treating animals badly fill me with rage against the perpetrators.

Quite a few of my loved ones have died and I know that many others in my life that I am fond of may die before me. While the prospect makes me sad, I can still think of it without becoming too upset. But I cannot bear to even contemplate the death of my dog. The thought fills me with such dread that I resolutely push it out of my mind. Even writing these words cause me discomfort.

I have tried and failed to explain this seemingly contradictory behavior on my part. The best I can come up with is that because animals are so dependent on us, and we have such power over them, treating them badly is a gross violation of our duties and obligations to them. It is like mistreating children or people who are powerless, something that also makes me really angry. There is something overwhelmingly wrong in abusing those over whom you have power.

December 15, 2011

Magic and religion

Via Jerry Coyne, I obtained this video of an amazing trick.

I love magic tricks. I enjoy them so much that I resist visiting sites that might reveal how they are done, preferring to try and figure it for myself, which is almost always a futile exercise. I enjoy the mystery of magic.

It struck me that my attitude is similar to that of religious people who also like to wallow in mystery and not seek natural explanations for the extraordinary claims of their religions.

There is one critical difference though. I know that the magic tricks I enjoy are just tricks and magicians never claim otherwise either. There is no fraud involved. If someone did claim that they had supernatural powers, then I would work diligently to understand how the trick was done in order to expose the fraud. With religious people and their beliefs, they seem to want supernatural explanations and resist natural explanations.

Donald Berwick explains the Affordable Care Act

Donald Berwick is a highly respected expert on health care who was president Obama's nominee to head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. So of course he was opposed by the Republicans who are determined to block anything that might benefit people under the act. He was forced to serve for just a limited time by means of a recess appointment and has now stepped down from that post.

Chris Hayes had an interview with him that I highly recommended watching, especially his explanation about the important aspects of the Affordable Care Act. That begins at the 9:00 minute mark.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Misconceptions about Nazi ideology

One popular trope is that the Nazi racist ideology was atheistic and Darwinian, and the conclusion is drawn that atheism and evolution are thus responsible for all its evils. This was a central theme in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But while that argument has always been specious at best, this article by Coel Hellier methodically lays out the case that even the premise is wrong, and that "Nazi racial ideolology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism."

The main idea of the article is that Hitler was not advocating the creation of a master race by some form of eugenic procedures that originated with Darwin's idea. Hitler was instead advancing the explicitly creationist case that Aryans were god's original creation in the Garden of Eden and that this pure creation was being polluted by interbreeding with inferior races and that this needed to be reversed.

It is a long article that goes into great detail in demolishing this argument by tracing the intellectual roots of Nazism. I will quote just a few excerpts to give you a general sense of Hellier's argument.

Among those who dislike Darwin's explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: "From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists" (which is wrong on all the others, not just Hitler). So widespread is the claim that even many who accept that Darwinian evolution has been established as true, well beyond any reasonable doubt, also believe that Darwinian ideas were misused to justify Nazi atrocities.

Are these claims correct? Remarkably, for a claim so widely accepted, no they aren't. Indeed, the Nazi ideology underpinning the extermination of the Jews was opposed to and incompatible with Darwinism, instead being a religious and creationist doctrine.

They believed that the different human races were distinct and separate, created as God wanted them, and they regarded these permanent racial characteristics as all important to human culture and destiny. Further, they believed that allowing racial inter-mixing had led to the downfall of civilizations, and was a sin against God's creation. Thus they considered it of overwhelming importance to preserve their own Nordic/Aryan race, which they regarded as superior and created in "God's own image", by preventing inter-breeding with "inferior" races which they regarded as literally "sub-human", being separate creations.

So, yes, the Nazis wanted to use selective breeding, but not to create a "master race", but to preserve an Aryan master race, preserving the primordial Aryan characteristics which they believed were the "highest image of God".

This ideology shares one thing with Darwinism, namely the possibility of using selective breeding to achieve a desired end, a possibility mankind had known about since the invention of farming, about 12,000 yrs ago. But in all other respects it is profoundly anti-Darwinian. Whereas in Darwinian evolution all mankind evolved out of a common monkey-like ancestor, with all human races sharing a common origin in the recent past, in Nazi ideology the different human races were distinct and separate creations.

While the mutability of species, with new species evolving out of distant ancestors, is the central theme of Darwinism, the Nazis found that idea anathema, and placed a heavy emphasis on racial purity and the distinctiveness and separateness of different species. Further, the Nazis found abhorrent the materialist notion that man might be just like other animals, and, from their religious and moralistic perspective, they insisted that man had a spiritual soul.

That is why leading Nazi ideologues wrote books explicitly rejecting Darwinism, and why they banned Darwinian works from public libraries. The truth is that nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwin — the slight overlap is only in areas known about long pre-Darwin. Nor are there any quotes of leading Nazis looking to Darwin or pointing to Darwin as justification — if there were the creationists would likely have found them by now. In short, the association of Nazi doctrine with Darwinism is an outright fabrication by those who wish to discredit Darwinism and the scientific account of the origin of man.

Mein Kampf does not mention Darwin even once. Where atheism is mentioned (twice) it is pejorative, associating atheism with Jews and Marxism (e.g. "They even enter into political intrigues with the atheistic Jewish parties against the interests of their own Christian nation" and "… atheistic Marxist newspapers …"). Instead, Mein Kampf presents a religious, creationist and moralistic argument for removing Jews from German society. That is the major theme of the book, running through it repeatedly.

In line with the above Nazi thinkers, Hitler believed that mankind did not have a common origin, but consisted of several distinct and separately created races. The Aryan race was the superior race, with other races such as Jews and Slavs being literally "sub-human". Hitler believed that the Aryans had enjoyed a golden past, and that Germany's current troubles were the result of allowing racial inter-mixing, which was destroying the master race, leading to a degeneration of society. Thus it was morally necessary to prevent racial inter-mixing, if necessary by a "final solution" to the "Jewish problem".

In summary, while Nazi racial doctrine and Mein Kampf share one feature with Darwinism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi doctrine is not derived from Darwinism and is fundamentally incompatible with it. Whereas Darwinism says that all humans have a common origin, that species and races are malleable, evolving over time, and that one could (as with all animals, and if one so wished) artificially control breeding to enhance and select desired characteristics, Nazi doctrine says that human races are distinct and primordial, created separately by the Will of God, who desires that they remain separate, that the moral imperative is to preserve the races in their current state by preventing any racial intermixing, which would be both harmful and sinful.

Above all, while any similarity with Darwinism is only in one mechanism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi motivation for keeping the races separate is profoundly anti-Darwinian and instead religious and creationist.

Indeed, what records we have show that, far from being inspired by Darwin's work (which there is no record of Hitler ever having read), Hitler was instead inspired by religious ideology and the Bible. A revealing notebook shows that Hitler's ideas on race were inspired by his reading of the Old Testament.

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

Hellier also examines the claim that the Nazi's were atheistic and finds that too to be also false.

The labelling of the Nazis as "atheistic" is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it "atheistic".

While the Nazi's were critical of the current established churches, they considered themselves to be followers of a purer form of Christianity.

Nazi theology, however, departed from mainstream Christianity in regarding the Christian churches as misguided and having been corrupted from the original aims of Jesus by Jewish influence, particularly that of Paul. The Nazis claimed that Jesus was not a Jew, but instead an Aryan (again, to the Nazis these were separately created races).

The Nazis thus founded the German Christian movement, mixing Christian theology with Nazi racial ideology, and espousing a "Positive Christianity" which contrasted with what they saw as the "negative Christianity" of the existing Jewish-influenced churches. With Nazi support, the Deutsche Christen won two thirds of the vote in the 1932 church elections, claimed a membership of 600,000 pastors, bishops, professors of theology, religion teachers, and laity, and were aiming to supplant the Catholic and Protestant churches.

This article is a useful reference to those who bring up the tired 'Hitler was a Darwinian and hence evolution is bad and thus wrong' argument.

December 14, 2011

The Daily Show's analysis of the Republican debate

The size of the bailout keeps growing

Last week, I wrote about the revelation that the size of the bailout was $7.77 trillion, much larger than publicly revealed during the time. Via reader Mark, I read this article by former congressman Alan Grayson that says that the audit that was enabled by legislation that he and Ron Paul initiated reveals that the size of the Federal Reserve bailout of the big banks all over the world is now even greater than that, to the tune of $26 trillion, which is almost twice the size of the entire GDP of the US, which is a little over $14 trillion. Grayson explains the key numbers that the audit revealed:

Page 131 - The total lending for the Fed's "broad-based emergency programs" was $16,115,000,000,000. That's right, more than $16 trillion. The four largest recipients, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, received more than a trillion dollars each. The 5th largest recipient was Barclays PLC. The 8th was the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, PLC. The 9th was Deutsche Bank AG. The 10th was UBS AG. These four institutions each got between a quarter of a trillion and a trillion dollars. None of them is an American bank.

Page 205 - Separate and apart from these "broad-based emergency program" loans were another $10,057,000,000,000 in "currency swaps." In the "currency swaps," the Fed handed dollars to foreign central banks, no strings attached, to fund bailouts in other countries. The Fed's only "collateral" was a corresponding amount of foreign currency, which never left the Fed's books (even to be deposited to earn interest), plus a promise to repay. But the Fed agreed to give back the foreign currency at the original exchange rate, even if the foreign currency appreciated in value during the period of the swap. These currency swaps and the "broad-based emergency program" loans, together, totaled more than $26 trillion. That's almost $100,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That's an amount equal to more than seven years of federal spending -- on the military, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the debt, and everything else. And around twice American's total GNP.

These are staggering amounts. And it was all done under the radar, using the secrecy with which the Federal Reserve and the government use when it comes to serving the oligarchy.

Police brutality as a consequence of the war on terror

In a comment to an earlier post on the increasing paramilitarization of the police, reader Steve raised the question of the connection between the rise of such policing in the US and the work of the ominously named Department of Homeland Security that was formed in the wake of the events of 9/11.

He is of course absolutely right. At the time that the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through in October 2001 with almost unanimous support in Congress (357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate, with Russ Feingold being the lone holdout), many of us warned that this was a Trojan horse that would be used to undermine the rule of law and the constitutional protections that had, with a few exceptions, been followed for much of its history. What exceptions had been made were at times of great stress (the Civil War and World War II) and were seen as temporary measures.

The USA PATRIOT Act institutionalized these abuses and made them part of the new normal. Under the guise of fighting the 'war on terror', a threat that is increasingly being revealed as bogus, the DHS was created under the act and has, along with the National Security Agency and the CIA and FBI, been the vehicles that have been used to create a Big Brother state that now routinely violates the rights of Americans in the permanent war on terror.

Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi both look at the roots of the increased use of pepper-spraying as standard procedure, even as concerns are being raised about whether they are as non-lethal as claimed.

One consequence has been that the spread of so-called non-lethal weapons, such as the various gases, tasers, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water cannons, ear-splitting sound emitters, etc., have had the effect of actually increasing the violence used by police, since the innocuous term 'non-lethal' for weapons that can still cause serious harm actually encourages their indiscriminate use against people. We seem to have reached the stage where we think that as long as people are not killed or dismembered, then whatever is done to them in the name of law and order is acceptable. This is the same kind of mentality that enables people to condone torture.

Two factors are leading to a proliferation of new anti-civilian weapons. One is that massive funding for the so-called 'war on terror' has enabled the DHS to shower military-style equipment on even small police forces that transform them into paramilitary units. While the equipment has been given away freely to local units, the heavy expense of maintaining them is the responsibility of local agencies and is draining police resources away from traditional police work. The other factor at play in driving this is that the huge amounts of money now available for 'anti-terrorism' has created an incentive for companies to come up with new ways of disabling and dispersing crowds. As a result, pepper spray may soon become one of the milder forms of brutality.

James Wolcott describes how ear-splitting sound devices known as LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices), more popularly known as 'sound cannons' and used on the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, can cause severe damage on the human body. He quotes an ACLU report that describes what happened to Karen Piper who was present at the scene of G-20 protests in 2009.

On September 24, 2009, Piper, then a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to observe G-20 protests in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood as research for her book on globalization issues and the responses of bodies like the G-20 to protest activity. She arrived at Arsenal Park around 10 a.m. and saw protestors calmly and peacefully milling around the area. After the protest began, Piper walked on the sidewalk a short distance from the marching protesters, in the company of other curiosity seekers and journalists. When Piper became concerned about rapidly increasing police activity, she tried to leave the area. As she was walking away, police officers activated, suddenly and without warning, an LRAD a short distance away from her. It emitted a continuous piercing sound lasting several minutes.

Piper immediately suffered intense pain as mucus discharged from her ear. She became nauseous and dizzy and developed a severe headache. Since then, Piper has suffered from tinnitus (ringing of the ears), barotrauma, left ear pain and fluid drainage, dizziness, and nausea. She still suffers from permanent nerve damage.

"The intensity of being hit at close range by a high-pitched sound blast designed to deter pirate boats and terrorists at least a quarter mile away is indescribable. The sound vibrates through you and causes pain throughout your body, not only in the ears. I thought I might die," said Piper, now an English professor at the University of Missouri. "It is shocking that the LRAD device is being promoted for use on American citizens and the general public."

Now come reports of the development of lasers that 'temporarily' blind people being tested as riot control weapons in England. Rest assured that they will come here soon, to be followed by 'accidents' in which people end up being permanently blinded because of equipment malfunction or improper use.

We also have the first reports of the predator drones that are being used around the world to spy on and kill people now being deployed in the US.

I remember how, when I first came to the US in 1975, I was unnerved to see police walking around with real guns. Sri Lanka at that time had a civilian unarmed police force, with weapons used only in the most extreme cases. Now it has a highly militarized police with powerful guns, armored vehicles, and checkpoints becoming routine sights. The militarization of the police in the US is now also well underway and soon it will seem normal to see police in riot gear armed to the teeth stationed with armored vehicles at various places in cities.

We should never forget that the prime role of a country's military nowadays is almost always to protect government leaders and the oligarchy from its own people, not from external threats. The external threat is an excuse to intimidate and cow its own people into acquiescence.

December 13, 2011

This is going to make Bill O'Reilly cry

Via Pharyngula I learn that the city of Santa Monica this year decided to have a lottery to see who gets to use 14 city park spaces for holiday decorations, instead of awarding them all to Christian groups as in previous years. The result? Christians got three, Jews got one, and atheists got 10.

Now the Christians are miffed, claiming they are being 'silenced' and their First Amendment rights are being violated.

Cue Fox News outrage!

Yes sir, that's my Bibi

As usual, I did not watch last Saturday's Republican debate, preferring to learn about it from Richard Adams' always entertaining live blog for The Guardian. One exchange that caught my eye was when Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich fell over themselves trying to show who was more devoted to Israel, repeatedly referring to the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their friend 'Bibi'.

Romney: Of course you [Gingrich] stand firm and stand for the truth, but you don't speak for Israel.
Gingrich: I didn't.
Romney: If Bibi Netanyahu wants to say what you said, let him say it. But our ally, the people of Israel should be able to take their own positions and not have us negotiate for them.
Gingrich: Can I just say one last thing? Because I didn't speak for the people of Israel. I spoke as a historian who has looked at the world stage for a very long time. I've known Bibi [Netanyahu] since 1984. I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth about the war they are in the middle of and the casualties they're taking and the people who surround them who say, you do not have the right to exist and we want to destroy you.
Romney: I've also known Bibi Netanyahu for a long time. We worked together at Boston Consulting Group. And the last thing Bibi Netanyahu needs to have is not just a person who's a historian, but someone who is also running for president of the United States stand up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood. And if I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability and make sure that I don't say anything like this.

Anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying. I don't do anything that would harm that process. And, therefore, before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend, Bibi Netanyahu and say, would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do? Let's work together because we're partners.

I find it extraordinary that people running for the leadership of one country would so proudly proclaim their undying loyalty to another country, to the extent that they would not say anything without first getting it approved by the head of that country, even though that head is despised by world leaders as a liar.

I would like moderators at these debates to ask the candidates if there is any issue on which the interests of the US and Israel diverge. Except for Ron Paul, I expect them all to answer 'no', even though such an answer is patently absurd.

Religion as belief vs practice

Sophisticated apologists for religion will discount almost all the supernatural beliefs of religions because they are incredible and so embarrassing that no one with any pretensions of rational thought can sign on to them. Talking snakes? People dying and coming back to life? Rebirth? Books dictated by god? A supernatural entity who overrides the laws of nature because an individual requests it?

This has led some to try to identify religion with a set of rituals and practices that provide people with a way of viewing the world that does not contradict science and thus can form the basis of common ground between religion and science. In discussions with colleagues, especially in the religious studies department, I am often told that my view of religion is too distorted by fundamentalist Christianity and that most religious people do not concern themselves much with the idea of god at all.

Is that possible? Via Jerry Coyne, I heard of the valiant effort by Julian Baggini in The Guardian to seek the minimal definition of religion would make "religion intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists." Here are what he calls the four articles of 21st century faith that he has come up with as a result of his search:

Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion "really" is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.

  1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.

  2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.

  3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.

  4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.

He points out, quite correctly, that one cannot be ambivalent about the choice of accepting or rejecting them. If you cannot sign on to any one of them, it means that you agree with its contradiction. He says:

So let us be plain that to reject these articles of faith would mean to maintain their contradictions, namely:

  1. Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.

  2. Religious belief requires the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.

  3. Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.

  4. Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.

The next task he set himself was to see whether atheists and religious people would sign up to them. While I would have no problem with religion as described by his four articles, I was frankly skeptical that religious people would agree. Most ordinary religious people would reject them outright because they rule out the supernatural while the sophisticated religious would be uncomfortable with being forced into accepting any concrete formulation since they like to live in a world of ambiguity where they never actually come out and say what the believe.

And sure enough, Baggini later reported general failure. A very few of the more sophisticated religious apologists were reluctant to reject his articles but were wary because of the absence of anything that could be described as transcendental. Some religious people, including those who are thought of as 'radicals', rejected them outright. As Baggini says:

If the articles of faith are to provide any hope of establishing the existence of the kind of reasonable faith I think should be possible, we need to get support for them from people who are actually actively and self-consciously religious.

So far, that has not been forthcoming. Theo Hobson, for example, a self-described "liberal" theologian, says: "I'm afraid I don't really sympathise with this. Christianity can't be reformed by the neat excision of the 'irrational'/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the 'creed' side is an expression of this."

Nick Spencer, research director at the eminently reasonable public theology thinktank Theos, was even clearer in his rejection, saying, for instance: "Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn't mean they can't be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine … I don't see what's left of the Abrahamics if you do take this out of the equation in this way". Spencer also provides little hope of finding too many other supporters out there, adding that "there would be precious few Christians I know … who could sign up to all your points. To take just the most obvious example: according to mainstream Christian thought, Christianity is founded on a belief in the physical resurrection."

Baggini concludes:

Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts. If that is indeed the case then DiscoveredJoys is right that when it comes to belief: the middle ground is virtual deserted.

Religious people, however sophisticated, are unable to break the grip of wanting to believe in some form of the supernatural, some ineffable mystical presence that transcends the material world. This is why there can be no accommodation between science and religion, and in that conflict religion will lose because there is no evidence that such a presence exists.

December 12, 2011

Australian to be lashed for blasphemy

A Saudi Arabian court has found an Australian Muslim guilty of committing blasphemy while he was on a pilgrimage to Mecca and sentenced him to 500 lashes for. He could die as a result. (Via Machines Like Us.)

What is the matter with these people? This case is just like the period of the inquisition where people were punished with even death for lack of sufficient piety. This illustrates the problem with religion. It is rigid and backward looking, holding on to medieval ideas and practices, and threatening people with dire punishments if they do not conform to them. Sometimes the punishment is threatened in this world, sometimes in the afterlife in the form of hell.

Religion has no place in the modern world but many people have not yet come to the realization.

A clearer definition of atheist

(This is my article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the New Humanist magazine that appeared there with the title No Doubt.)

Charles Darwin believed that God was not required to explain nature and strongly opposed the later attempts by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, to argue that some form of divine intervention was necessary to explain human intelligence and consciousness.

From this, one might reasonably conclude that Darwin was an atheist. And yet he firmly rejected efforts by others to stick that label on him and insisted on calling himself an agnostic. Edward Aveling, a self-professed atheist, tried to convince Darwin that "the terms 'agnostic' and 'atheist' were practically equivalent". Darwin did not challenge Aveling's characterization that an "agnostic was but atheist writ respectable and atheist was but agnostic writ aggressive", but merely questioned why anyone would want to be aggressive.

Darwin's response highlights the fact that calling oneself an agnostic is much more socially acceptable than saying one is an atheist. As a respectable member of the Victorian establishment he likely did not want to disturb the comfortable social world in which he lived. Religious believers are far more comfortable with agnostics. Atheists appear to directly contradict their views; whereas agnostics seem to allow for the possibility that God might exist and thus confer some intellectual respectability on those with belief.

But what exactly is the difference? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an atheist as "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God." That part of the definition as one who "disbelieves" in God is unexceptional. Atheists say that there is no evidence for the existence of God and so it makes no sense to believe in one. It is the word "denies" that creates problems. If by "denies" we mean a willingness to publicly declare disbelief, then it too is acceptable. But if interpreted as implying that the atheist is certain that there is no God, then it is too strong. Since one cannot prove the non-existence of a god, or anything else, no thoughtful atheist would sign on to such a statement.

The OED definition of an agnostic – as "One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing" – hardly banishes the confusion either.

One problem is that this definition fails to distinguish between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. As Ricky Gervais said in response to a challenge as to what right a mere comedian had to make pronouncements on whether God exists; "Since there is nothing to know about God, a comedian knows as much about God as anyone else."

It is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, however absurd (whether it be a god or unicorns), so the purely logical answer to whether anything exists, when the answer isn't "yes", is "I don't know". By this definition we are all agnostic about practically everything.

But there is a difference between saying one is agnostic because of the logical impossibility of proving a negative, and being an agnostic because the evidence is not (as yet, anyway) convincing either way. For example, the currently popular theory of elementary particles postulates the existence of a particle known as the Higgs boson that has as yet not been directly detected. The new Large Hadron Collider at CERN has the detection of this particle as one of its major goals. Until it is detected, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic on the question of its existence. If at some point it is detected, agnostics would shift out of the agnostic camp and into the camp of believers. But when would it become possible to say that it does not exist?

A state of permanent agnosticism in such situations seems unwarranted. After all, we are perfectly comfortable in saying that some things simply don't exist even if we cannot prove it logically. So in the absence of any evidence for existence, what distinguishes those things we can confidently assert don't exist (like unicorns) from those things (like God or an immaterial soul) whose nonexistence some are loth to proclaim?

Science can help here because in that world, when something becomes unnecessary as an explanatory concept, it is confidently asserted not to exist. For example, take the concept of the ether. This was believed to be a material substance that permeated all of space and was necessary in order to explain the propagation of electromagnetic waves. As more and more experiments failed to detect it, the properties of the ether had to be refined and modified to explain away the negative results. Even though the theory of the ether became quite convoluted, it was still thought to exist because it was necessary as an explanatory concept. When Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, he did not prove that there was no ether. What he did with his alternative theory was make the ether unnecessary as an explanatory concept. As a consequence, scientists now comfortably assert that the ether does not exist, just as they were comfortable thinking earlier that it did exist. We are no longer agnostic on the question of ether's existence.

So rather than "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God", a more accurate definition for atheist would be "One for whom God is unnecessary as an explanatory concept". This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think that God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say "no", they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say "yes", they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

This proposed definition of atheist may not make agnosticism about God completely redundant, because determined people of a philosophical bent can always find ways to salvage any cherished proposition from being rejected. But it would go a long way towards clarifying what atheism represents.

December 11, 2011

Penn Jillette says reading the Bible made him an atheist

His story (of being part of a liberal Christian family and community and attending a church youth group with a minister who was modern and open to dialogue and questioning) is exactly like mine. The main difference is that I was not as smart and as well read in my teens as Jillette was and thus was not exposed to serious atheist thinkers. As a result, my own intellectual efforts at that time were directed towards finding ways to justify my belief in god, and this required me to gloss over all the problems in the Bible and rationalize its atrocities. My serious reading at that time consisted of the modern theologians who did not take the Bible literally (except for a few core elements) and instead focused their efforts on making belief in god intellectually respectable.

So my story is the same as Jillette's except for about a twenty-year gap in which I was seeking reasons to believe in a god before I reached his stage of understanding that the whole exercise was pointless

But better late than never, as they say.

Proponent of jury nullification may not get a jury trial

I have written before about the important practice of jury nullification, in which juries exercise their option to be the ultimate judges of the validity of laws and have the right, if they think that the law itself is unjust, to acquit someone of a charge even if the person is clearly guilty of violating the law. (See here and here)

Juries have this right because they, not the legislators, are the ultimate judges of a whether a law is just and are the ultimate bulwark against governments that can manipulate the system to pass laws that are not in the public interest. Judges and prosecutors often oppose sharing information about this right with juries, another example of the desire of the elites to prevent ordinary people from exercising any power. Judges want to preserve their right to be the sole interpreters of the law while prosecutors do not want to allow another mechanism for acquittal.

This issue has once again come to the fore. Julian Heicklen, a retired Penn State professor of chemistry, is being charged with jury tampering because he handed out flyers outside a Manhattan courthouse informing those who entered the building (including prospective members of juries) of the right of juries to nullify. (I have written about this particular case before.)

Heicklen has asked for a jury trial, as is his right under Amendment VI and Amendment VII of the Bill of Rights of the US constitution, but this is being opposed because prosecutors fear that he will use jury nullification in his own trial as part of his defense against charges that he is illegally advocating jury nullification. Talk about a Catch-22.

This is exactly why the right to a trial by a fully informed jury is so important.

December 10, 2011

Fewer atheists in prison

This article looks at the religious beliefs of prison inmates and finds that the fraction of those who are non-believers is almost negligible, far smaller than their numbers in the general population.

In "The New Criminology", Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith say that two generations of statisticians found that the ratio of convicts without religious training is about 1/10 of 1%. W. T. Root, professor of psychology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, examined 1,916 prisoners and said "Indifference to religion, due to thought, strengthens character," adding that Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists and Free-Thinkers are absent from penitentiaries or nearly so.

During 10 years in Sing-Sing, those executed for murder were 65% Catholics, 26% Protestants, 6% Hebrew, 2% Pagan, and less than 1/3 of 1% non-religious.

Interesting.

Newt Gingrich and the Republican establishment

As I have said many times before, the Republican party establishment had for a long time fed fiery rhetoric on social issues to its party's base in order to win votes, while following pro-oligarchic policies when in power. But the 2008 election provided indicators that the base was fed up with being used this way and wanted to wrest control of the leadership. I said that the 2012 election would bring this fault line to the forefront and show whether the establishment still had control. This has happened and the Romney-Gingrich contest is a good measure of it. News reports are emerging all over of the party establishment attacking Newt Gingrich and pulling for Romney. (See here, here, and here.) It will be interesting to see how they eat their words and support Gingrich if he should be the eventual nominee.

What is noticeable in this race is that the headliners in the Republican party establishment have so far largely steered clear of making any endorsements. They usually play safe and wait until the result is a foregone conclusion and declare their support for the likely winner. But this time around they may face pressure to endorse Romney in order to help him win.

I must admit that I am surprised that Gingrich, of all people, has emerged as the flag bearer for the anti-establishment movement. After all, he is a career politician and ultimate Washington insider, which should make the establishment favor him, but that very fact, plus that he has a lot of baggage in his past, should make the nutty base of the party skittish. The only explanation I can come up with for this weird reversal is that the party establishment is opposing him, not because they fear his policies which are reliably pro-oligarchy, but because they are rightly fearful that Gingrich is too mercurial and unstable and that he will self-destruct, giving Obama an easy re-election victory. And paradoxically, the party establishment's opposition to Gingrich may be what is making him attractive to the base, who have never quite warmed to department store mannequin Mitt Romney.

The Ron Paul camp sees this struggle, along with the revised party rules for awarding primary delegates, as providing a possible path to the nomination, though that remains a very long shot. Recall that the Obama camp in 2008 also cleverly used party rules to amass sizable delegate totals even when they were losing primaries.

December 09, 2011

The Daily Show on pandering to Israel

Yesterday I wrote about all the Republican candidates (minus Ron Paul) falling over themselves to pander to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Jon Stewart has some clips from the event.

After Cain, the deluge

This year's Republican primary has been so wacky that we may think that previous races did not have crazy candidates. That is not true. In the 2008 race, there were also people who were nutty as well as a whole bunch of short-lived candidacies by people who quickly faded into obscurity and whose names you have likely forgotten.

The difference this time is that the multitude of debates has given candidates a much longer shelf-life and visibility, and this is likely to increase the likelihood of attention seekers to run in the future. There is one other new wrinkle this time around. One of the side effects of the candidacies of Herman Cain and Donald Trump is that it will likely spawn a lot of future candidates in their mold: Business people who have made a lot of money and are bored with their lives and want some limelight and excitement in the twilight of their careers. They might look at the way Cain went from obscurity to household name and decide that next time around they too will run for president.

While Cain seemed utterly clueless in thinking that his past would not be examined closely, the more cautious among the future rich candidates would run only if there is nothing in their past that will cause them embarrassment. But even that may not deter some because they are so arrogant that they will not realize that what they consider normal behavior toward others may be viewed differently by regular people. These people have lived so long in the bubble that wealth provides, surrounded by toadies who tell them what they want to hear, that they tend to be arrogant and think that nothing can harm them.

So if there is no Republican incumbent in 2016, expect to see a slew of rich businessmen who have never held elected office running for president, portraying themselves as saviors of the country.

The Room and film clichés

I recently saw the film The Room (2003). This is a film that got brutally panned in reviews and I watched it fully expecting it would be terrible. Why subject myself to such a waste of time? Because it belongs in that rare category of films that are so bad that they are good. As one person said, The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad films, so awful that it has developed a cult following, with special midnight screenings for the faithful who anticipate every scene, throwing plastic spoons and footballs at appropriate moments, and yelling out key pieces of dialogue.

Most ordinary bad films are bad because they are the work of a group of people who could not quite get their act together, with the writers, actors, and director either not agreeing on the vision or with one or more key people putting in a subpar performance. The really great bad films are usually the result of a single person with a vision that is badly flawed, combined with ineptitude. In this case, that person is Tommy Wiseau who is the writer, director, producer, and star and who, as far anyone can tell about this person with a somewhat mysterious past, had never made a film before or even acted in one.

Film making involves a lot of conventions that we do not notice (if done well) but are essential in enabling the viewer to follow the film without being explicitly told what is going on. For example, a shot of a character gazing intently at something is usually followed by one that shows what he was looking at. If you are shown the exterior of a building followed by shot of a room, we are justified in assuming that the room is inside the building. And so on. Wiseau violates cinematic conventions at every turn. Characters appear that do not have any backstory and then disappear without explanation, plotlines are introduced and dropped, events are foreshadowed that don't materialize, scenes inside the small apartment are interspersed for no apparent reason by random scenic views of San Francisco (the Golden Gate bridge should receive credit simply for the amount of screen time it gets), the dialogue is painful, the acting is either wooden or overwrought, and there is lack of continuity in the storyline.

For example, we are told repeatedly that Wiseau and his fiancé are going to get married in a month. Then late in the film, Wiseau and three friends appear in tuxedos and Wiseau is profusely complimented on his appearance, suggesting that this is his wedding day. They then go into an alleyway and throw a football around (throwing a football around in confined spaces is a recurring theme) until one of them falls down. The film then continues with everyone in regular clothes and it turns out that the wedding is still a month away and no explanation is given for the mysterious tuxedo scene.

At the end, Wiseau gets really upset (ostensibly by his girl friend's betrayal but perhaps because he realizes his film is a disaster) and sets about systematically trashing his apartment. He sweeps everything off the mantelpiece, breaks glasses, throws things at the mirror, flings his TV through a window, overturns furniture, empties the contents of dresser drawers, etc. As I watched it, I realized that I have seen this film cliché many times and it made me wonder: Do people in real life do this? I am not talking about bad boy rock musicians or other celebrities who trash their hotel or dressing rooms under the influence of drugs or because that has become something they think is expected of them and gets them publicity. I am talking about people who trash the places where they actually live because they are angry or upset.

I know that I wouldn't because, at the very least, I would have to clean up the mess afterwards and go to all the trouble and expense of replacing the things I broke. It all seems so pointless. Is this kind of tantrum something that happens only in films? Do the readers of this blog personally know any ordinary person who has ever done something like that, or even just thrown a glass at someone or into the fireplace, another popular cliché?

So watching The Room at least prompted in me one serious question, so it was not a total waste of time.

December 08, 2011

Deck the Halls! It's "War on Christmas" party time!

Yes, it's that time of year to have fun seeing the people over at Fox News get into a lather over people not using the word 'Christmas' everywhere. The best part of this war is that it not only gives The Daily Show plenty of material for mockery, it also allows them to set the record straight, destroying the myth that the US used to always treat Christmas with somber veneration until we heathens destroyed its sanctity.

Face it, Fox News. You have lost the war on Christmas. It has become largely a secular event and there is no going back, however much you insist on saying "Merry Christmas".

Pandering to Israel by politicians and the media

If there is one thing that exceeds the absurd extravagance with which American politicians declare their love for Jesus, it is how they describe their love for Israel. It seems like no level of pandering is enough. Just yesterday, six of the Republican candidates attended a forum of the American Jewish Coalition and fell over themselves trying to outdo each other in supporting the most extreme policies of Israel and criticizing president Obama for not doing enough, even though Obama has been as obsequious in appeasing the Israel lobby as any previous president. Ron Paul was not invited to this gathering because he alone has questioned America's massive subsidizing of Israel's economy and unquestioned support for its dangerous policies in the Middle East.

The pandering to Israel does not stop with politicians either. The mainstream media is also wary of saying anything that could be construed as anything other than whole-hearted support for Israel. The level of self-censorship in the Western media when it comes to Israel is quite extraordinary. For example, at a recent summit meeting, an open microphone picked up the following bit of dialogue:

French president Nicholas Sarkozy: "I can't stand him [Netanyahu] any more, he's a liar."
US president Barack Obama: "You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,"

Uri Avnery says that this exchange followed a report that German chancellor Angela Merkel had told her cabinet that "every word that leaves Netanyahu's mouth is a lie."

The dialogue was broadcast live to a group of senior French media people, because somebody forgot to turn the microphone off. A piece of luck of the kind that journalists dream about.

Yet not one of the journalists in the hall published a word about it. They kept it to themselves and only told it to their colleagues, who told it to their friends, one of whom told it to a blogger, who published it.

Why? Because the senior journalists who were present are friends and confidants of the people in power. That's how they get their scoops. The price is suppressing any news that might hurt or embarrass their sponsors. This means in practice that they become lackeys of the people in power – betraying their elementary democratic duty as servants of the public.

I know this from experience. As an editor of a news magazine, I saw it as my duty (and pleasure) to break these conspiracies of silence. Actually, many of our best scoops were given to us by colleagues from other publications who could not use them themselves for the same reason.

Luckily, with the internet now everywhere, it has become almost impossible to suppress news. Blessed be the online Gods.

You would think that the news that the heads of three major economic powers so utterly despise the head of a country they publicly support unconditionally would be big news and the leaders would be repeatedly asked about this. But this news item lasted just a couple of days in the American media, disappearing as fast as it appeared.

But as Avnery said, the Sakozy-Obama exchange might not have made it into the media at all if not for bloggers on the internet, so we should at least be grateful for that.

Billionaire Nick Hanauer on why rich people need to pay more taxes

Four years ago, I made the obvious point of why spreading the wealth was much better for everyone than great inequality. (I wrote a whole series of posts on this but this particular one is the most relevant here.)

The oligarchy and its allies, especially those in the Republican party and Fox News, have fought against this, saying that rich people are 'job creators' and taxing them more means that they will invest less and hire less people. A billionaire venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer wrote an op-ed in which he debunks this idea and pretty much makes the same point that people like me have made.

I'm a very rich person… Even so, I've never been a "job creator." I can start a business based on a great idea, and initially hire dozens or hundreds of people. But if no one can afford to buy what I have to sell, my business will soon fail and all those jobs will evaporate.

That's why I can say with confidence that rich people don't create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is the feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion a virtuous cycle that allows companies to survive and thrive and business owners to hire. An ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than I ever have been or ever will be.

It is unquestionably true that without entrepreneurs and investors, you can't have a dynamic and growing capitalist economy. But it's equally true that without consumers, you can't have entrepreneurs and investors. And the more we have happy customers with lots of disposable income, the better our businesses will do.

That's why our current policies are so upside down. When the American middle class defends a tax system in which the lion's share of benefits accrues to the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.

And that's what has been happening in the U.S. for the last 30 years.

One reason this policy is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don't buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, I go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.

I can't buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans can't buy any new clothes or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing consumption of the tens of millions of middle-class families that are barely squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or declining wages.

If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It's worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend. [My italics]

We've had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like me don't create jobs. Middle-class consumers do, and when they thrive, U.S. businesses grow and profit. That's why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.

So let's give a break to the true job creators. Let's tax the rich like we once did and use that money to spur growth by putting purchasing power back in the hands of the middle class. And let's remember that capitalists without customers are out of business.

What Hanauer is saying is (or should) blindingly obvious to anyone who gives the topic a moment's thought. Henry Ford said pretty much the same thing a century ago. But our oligarchy has gotten so out of control and so avaricious that they have to counter this renegade from their ranks and so naturally there has been pushback. In this interview Neil Cavuto of Fox News tries to faithfully serve his masters by challenging Hanauer.

Cavuto raises the idiotic argument that I have heard so often, that if Hanauer feels he should pay more taxes why does he not voluntarily send in a check instead of changing the tax rates for everyone?

That is the kind of argument that labels you as being either incredibly stupid or willfully obtuse. It is on a par with those anti-evolutionists who think that the question "If we descended from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?" is a devastating argument against evolution. Those who are tempted to make such an argument should really think twice, unless they don't mind people laughing at them.

December 07, 2011

We will miss you, Herman

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart bid a sad, sad farewell to the Cain campaign, one that held such promise in comedy potential.


Glenn Greenwald annual fundraiser

Once a year, Greenwald has a fundraiser and it is going on now. He is undoubtedly one of the most valuable resources on the web and I would strongly urge you to contribute whatever you can so that he can continue his work.

Being certain about god's existence

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 64% of people in the age range 18-29 say they are 'absolutely certain' that god exists. This is lower than the 73% of people over 30, another sign of the decrease in religiosity of younger people.

What I find really curious is that the respondents say they are absolutely certain of something that they cannot possibly be certain about. Absolute certainty, as commonly understood, means that you have no doubt whatsoever and that is a very high threshold that cannot be met for something as lacking in evidence as the existence of god. I am about as hard-core an atheist as you are likely to meet and even I would never say that I am 'absolutely certain' that god does not exist and most of the atheists I am aware of are like me.

So why do religious people say such things? I suspect that such assertions of certainty are the means by which people try to convince themselves of their beliefs in spite of their misgivings, the equivalent of sticking one's fingers in the ears to shut out unpleasant sounds. Such emphatic assertions of certainty are really symptoms of doubt.

An interesting follow-up would be to ask those respondents what it is that makes them so certain.

The factors that drive obedience and conformity

There was an old TV program called Candid Camera that used hidden cameras to capture what people did when confronted with awkward or unexpected situations. While the aim of the program was humorous, usually at the expense of the hapless person who happened to be caught on camera, some of the episodes serve as useful experiments on human behavior.

One particularly revealing one involved the desire of people to conform to powerful norms of behavior that we all follow without even thinking about it. For example, when people get into an elevator, they space themselves as far as possible from others, immediately turn around and face the front, and not make eye contact or speak, apart from sometimes a quick nod of greeting upon entering. But in this episode, the camera noted what happens when the norms seem to suddenly change.

Although the above experiment is amusing, psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the person behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) , reflects on it and the Milgram obedience study, and says that the Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals how the strong desire to conform to the norms of the people around us can lead to behaviors that are evil, something he calls 'the Lucifer effect'. (Zimbardo has written a book titled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil that I have bought and plan to read and write about soon.)

Zimbardo points an interesting feature in the Milgram obedience and the SPE studies about the role that religion plays in the willingness to obey authority and inflict pain on others even when one's own moral instincts are repulsed by the idea.

The large, diverse cast of ordinary characters in the obedience studies and the normal, healthy, intelligent cast in the prison study also serve to make vivid the tragic conclusion that we all hate to acknowledge: The goodness of Everyman and of Everywoman can be transformed and overwhelmed by the an accumulation of small forces of evil. The character transformation seen in many of the participants in both studies represents "The Lucifer Effect" in action. Both studies teach us lessons about authority; the obedience research teaches us to question authority when it is excessive and unjust, while the SPE teaches us the dangers of too little responsible authority when it is needed to perform oversight of the behavior of individuals within its agency.

Religious upbringing also comes to play in a complex way, leading both to unquestioning obedience to doctrinal beliefs as well as a profound caring for one's fellows. The first values should lead to greater obedience to authority in the Milgram paradigm, while the second should lead to less obedience to such authority. Support for the first prediction comes from a Milgram-like study that compared participants with various measured levels religious orientation in the extent to which they obeyed one of three authority figures: neutral, scientific, or religious. The results reveal that the shock scores elicited in this experiment were highest for the most religious participants, less for those moderately religious, and lowest for the least religious. Among those highly and moderately religious, the scientific and religious authorities were more effective than the neutral authority in eliciting the most obedience. Those who scored lowest on the religious measures, that centered around beliefs that one's life is under divine control, tended to reject any authority, be it religious or scientific. [My emphasis]

There is no question that scientific figures carry authority which is why scientific malpractice or fraud is taken so seriously. It is perhaps not hard to see why being religious or having a religious authority figure makes people more likely to be persuaded to go along with cruel acts. Religious people have usually been indoctrinated from childhood to believe that god is the ultimate authority figure and that unquestioning obedience to god's commands constitutes a virtue that will be rewarded. Their religious texts also have countless examples of the most appalling atrocities that their god has done or commanded people to do and which are supposed to serve a greater good. The appalling doctrine known as 'divine command theory' justifies such actions by saying that whatever god commands has to be good, even if it goes against every norm of humane behavior. Such beliefs can be a powerful force that can overcome the scruples that come with normal feelings of empathy towards other living things.

As a side note, a few months ago, I wrote about people who get lost in Death Valley and have even died because they followed the instructions of their GPS system even when it erroneously instructed them to take roads that barely existed. I wonder if that is another symptom of this phenomenon. After all, an assured and confident disembodied voice telling them what to do is somewhat like what they imagine some god-like authority figure would do, and they follow blindly.

December 06, 2011

More evidence of religion's decline

The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College surveys the religious views of Americans and their latest ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) report done in 2008 found the following:

  • 86% of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76% in 2008.
  • The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.
  • The "Nones" (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008.
  • Based on their stated beliefs rather than their religious identification in 2008, 70% of Americans believe in a personal God, roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure), and another 12% are deistic (a higher power but no personal God).
  • In 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990.

The report finds that when looked at as a percentage of the population growth from 1990 to 2008, the 'nones' category captured 37% of this growth while the don't know/refused to answer category (which the report says shared many of the social profiles and beliefs of the 'nones') had 15% of the growth, leaving just 48% of the growth to religiously affiliated people.

There is a lot of data in the report. What I found particularly interesting is that 30% of married respondents did not have a religious ceremony and 27% do not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they die.

I am not sure when or if they will be doing another study to see if the decline continues as I expect it will.

Riddle: What is torture in Bahrain but not in the US?

An interesting report came out last week. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) investigating the protests in Bahrain delivered its report last week and said that the Bahraini government had used "excessive force and torture" on demonstrators. (The full report can be read here.) This was significant in that the authoritarian Bahraini government that was responsible for those actions, and was aided by the Saudi Arabian military in its harsh crackdown, was still in power. The fact that they created a commission and allowed such a report to be released is a tribute to the fact that popular protests seen worldwide against the repressive government had created considerable pressure on even such a government to try and mitigate the damage.

The commission used as its definition of torture Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that says that:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

But although the report said that the government had used torture, the news reports that I read in the US were curiously coy about exactly what actions were considered to be torture. However much I searched for them, I could not get the details. For example, this typical report in the New York Times, which prides itself on being 'the newspaper of record' and usually provides the most details in US media shows how they skated over the issue:

Five detainees were tortured to death while in custody, the panel concluded, and other detainees endured electric shocks and were beaten with rubber hoses and wires.

In Washington, the Obama administration welcomed the report, but said the onus was now on Bahrain's government to hold accountable those responsible for abuses and to undertake reforms to make sure they do not occur again.

The subtle implication in this report is that being given electric shocks or beaten with rubber hoses and wires was not part of the torture regimen. I finally found an NPR story that provided more details.

Using words like torture, mistreatment and threatened rape, the head of the commission said the kinds of things that are rarely said out loud — especially in the conservative, oil-rich Gulf.

The commission head, Cherif Bassiouni, listed abuses he says were committed against protesters who were detained: They were blindfolded, forced to stand for long periods of time, whipped, beaten, subjected to electric shock, deprived of sleep, and exposed to high temperatures and insults.

These acts, Bassiouni said, amounted to torture. [My emphasis]

I now understood why the mainstream media was shy about specifying the acts. These are the very same actions, or even worse, that are done by the US on its detainees and since the US media is deferential to the claims by the US government that it does not torture, this element of the Bahraini report must have caused considerable cognitive dissonance and had to be suppressed. In the US, in an effort to excuse the Bush administration from war crimes, there was hesitancy to say that even waterboarding was torture, so all these other forms of torture have to be also not mentioned.

Eric Lewis, a lawyer whose efforts to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and the military chain of command for torture were opposed by the Obama administration, blasts Obama for his hypocrisy on torture, comparing his statements as a candidate with his actions as president, and says that by not prosecuting those who committed such acts, he has left the door wide open for the use of torture by any future president.

The president has rejected three clear opportunities to erect a high legal wall against the return of torture: he has made it clear that criminal prosecutions for torture will not go forward; he has opposed the creation of a truth commission to examine events comprehensively; and he has affirmatively intervened to stop civil litigation by detainees against their torturers.

Had President Obama shown the courage of candidate Obama, he would have strongly supported civil litigation under the Constitution against officials who authorized torture. The argument that it involves the courts in foreign policy or causes officials to be wary in their actions is nonsense. The ban on torture should be absolute; it is not a foreign policy or defense issue and it is salutary for officials to know that they will be held accountable for torture.

The Obama administration can't just say, "Trust us." Its challenge was not only to stop the American government from torturing detainees, but to institutionalize the legal infrastructure that would prevent the resumption of torture. President Obama had the opportunity to leave an unambiguous legal legacy that prohibited torture and inhibited the torturers of tomorrow from finding legal cover. Instead, we may reap the whirlwind of his timidity, and soon.

Until such time as we are willing to bring those who commit torture to justice, irrespective of who and where they are, these abuses will continue.

December 05, 2011

Penn Jillette on the current elections

He has an interesting take on the origins of 'Christian' politics in the US and how politicians use religion.

(Via Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write.)

Sleep

I like to sleep. I need a minimum of eight hours a night. But it is not just the good feeling that comes with resting that I find attractive. I really enjoy sleeping, the sensation of drowsing off, and usually have no difficulty doing so anywhere at any time, even on cramped airline seats on long flights. On weekends, I take a long nap after lunch and sometimes take a short nap seated up at my desk during the weekday.

I used to worry that this was a sign that I was lazy but learned later that most people don't get enough sleep and that this can really be harmful.

Here is a 60 Minutes report on the importance of getting enough sleep every day.

Now comes a new study that suggests that the variations in sleep needs can be traced to the influence of a specific gene.

I learned from the news report that Einstein needed 11 hours of sleep per night, which makes me a real slacker in the sleep department.

Airbrushing the Bible

The Bible poses a real problem for Jews and Christians. In it, god commands the most awful things that we now would recoil in horror from doing. So what options do they have? The literalists say that god must have good reasons for making those commands, even if those reasons are elusive to us, and that we have to simply trust in his goodness.

Of course, that is a tough sell for the more sophisticated believers and some of them have taken the tack of trying to re-interpret the plain text of the Bible to suggest that it actually says things that are more benign or even good than what appears on the surface. One such apologia can be seen in the essay Are Biblical Laws About Homosexuality Eternal? by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky, based on their book The Bible Now, where they tackle the highly problematical attitude of god towards homosexuality, which is turning out to be the Achilles' heel for Christianity and Judaism in America.

The essay itself is a fine example of the contortions one has to go through to salvage the idea that the Bible contains some moral value. Adam Kirsch of The New Republic reviewed the book and Jason Rosenhouse analyzed the essay and both come away unimpressed.

As Kirsch says, the Bible seems pretty clear about god's views on homosexuality.

Just look at Leviticus 20:13: "And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them." The law as written does not apply to women, but for homosexual men it means death.

At this point, the twenty-first-century Jew—like the Protestant and the Catholic, anyone whose religion views the Bible as holy writ—has two simple choices, and one messy and unsatisfying one. The first simple choice is the one the Satmar Hasid would take: the Bible being God's word, homosexuality is ipso facto an abomination, Q.E.D. The second is the one any secular rationalist would take: the Bible is not God's word, and it has no more binding force than any other ancient Near Eastern law code. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, holds that "If a man's wife be surprised with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water," but we are no more obligated to follow this law today than we are to follow Leviticus. Both reflect millennia-old views of gender and sexuality that now appear simply unjust.

The third choice is the one represented in The Bible Now, the new book by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. They have set out to explain "what the Bible has to say about the major issues of our time," in particular "five current controversial matters: homosexuality, abortion, women's status, capital punishment, and the earth." Some people turn to the Bible for guidance, they observe early on, "because … the Bible is the final authority and one must do what it says." But as secular academics, Friedman and Dolansky recognize that the Bible was written by historically situated human beings, with various political and religious agendas. They belong to the other category of Bible-seekers, they say, those "who do not believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, [but] turn to the Bible because they believe it contains wisdom—wisdom that might help anyone, whatever his or her beliefs, make wise decisions about difficult matters."

Kirsch goes on to say that by using a tortured analysis, Friedman and Dolansky manage to turn that ghastly Leviticus passage into something positive.

This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism. Friedman and Dolansky imply that it was not homosexuality the Bible wanted to condemn, but the humiliation of the passive partner. And since we no longer think of consensual sex acts as humiliating, surely the logic of the Bible itself means that homosexuality is no longer culpable: "The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive."

What licenses this kind of reading is the principle that "God is free to change," that is, to change his mind about what is offensive and inoffensive, good and evil—but only, it seems, in ways that bring him more in tune with the views of people like Friedman and Dolansky (and, I hasten to add, myself).

Rosenhouse points out another fact that makes all this convoluted argumentation seem pointless.

I would add that if we take the text seriously then it is not the authors of Leviticus who are issuing prohibitions, but God Himself. As Kirsch notes, Friedman and Dolansky do not accept the divine authorship of the Bible, so they are free to understand the text as the creation of an uninspired human writer. But in that case, what is the point of this exercise? Why would it even occur to anyone to think the author of this portion of Leviticus, writing thousands of years ago, had any particular insight into sexual morality?

I have no doubt that in the small community of Biblical scholars, this sort of analysis is considered very clever and highbrow. No doubt they endlessly pat each other on the backs for it and shake their heads sadly at those who think that when God personally describes something as an abomination, He actually intends to express His disapprobation for that something. But their arguments amount to nothing. To accept their conclusion we must believe that the Biblical authors once again (let us recall that the early chapters of Genesis come in for similar treatment at the hands of Biblical scholars) expressed themselves in ways that are most naturally understood in a manner almost precisely opposite to what they meant to say.

This is not reasonable. If you want to use the Bible as a moral guide then you are stuck with it. The text is not infinitely malleable, and you cannot reasonably interpret X to mean not X. Rather than try to twist the text to fit modern moral sensibilities, which despite their denials is precisely what Friedman and Dolansky are doing, why don't we simply discard this particular ancient book and move on to more promising approaches to morality?

This is a very important point that I wish to re-iterate. If a person believes that the Bible is of divine origin and thus infallible, then it makes sense that one would try to explain away the morality that is presently unacceptable. But few of the more sophisticated biblical apologists and theologians would claim that the words in the Bible were of divine origin and literally dictated by god. Almost all of them accept that they were the work of humans who lives thousands of years ago and were merely reflecting the morality of their times. Why don't they simply reject the obnoxious ideas in them just the way we would other old books?

What people like Friedman and Dolansky are seeking to do is to find a way to make the Bible less embarrassing to modern believers. It is another example of how modernity, and the sensibilities that come with it, are in direct conflict with the archaic attitudes of religions.

December 04, 2011

Deporting US citizens

The agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency "operate in a secretive judicial environment where detention hearings are held out of public view", according to this news report and this lack of oversight leads to abuses in which even US citizens are picked up, kept in detention for long periods, and even deported.

After a detailed examination of federal immigration records, Prof. Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University estimated this year that about 4,000 American citizens were illegally detained or deported as aliens in 2010. In a study published last summer, she found that as many as 20,000 citizens may have been wrongly held or deported since 2003.

"If they can't even protect the rights of citizens, think about the others who are being put through this system,'' Stevens said. "You have agents making life and death types of decisions and there is no check on their honesty.''

A US citizen who was detained for 43 days and almost deported is now suing the ICE agency for $1 million.

Once again, this shows the abuses that inevitably occur when people are given power that they can exercise in secret. Transparency has to be the foundation of a democracy but the government keeps steadily increasing the levels of secrecy under which it operates.

More on that $7.77 trillion Federal Reserve deal with the banks

Last Thursday, I wrote about how the Federal Reserve, in secret, committed itself to $7.77 trillion in support to the big banks. The Daily Show gives more details of the how the rip-off worked. It turns out that the Fed gave the banks money at interest rates of 0.01% (essentially free money) that the banks then used to buy US Treasury bonds. In essence the Fed was borrowing its own money back from the banks at much higher rates than it lent it out to the same banks. Any idiot could make money on such a deal and it should be no surprise that the banks made a quick $13 billion in profits, which they then doled out to their executives as huge bonuses as a reward for their business acumen.

The fact that there has been no outcry against Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke shows how the entire government and the major media is in the tank for the banks. The secrecy under which the Federal Reserve acts must end. It is a public body that is supposed to work for the public interest. It should not be allowed to become the private slush fund of the oligarchy.

December 03, 2011

Stephen Colbert on SOPA

The Colbert Report devoted two segments to SOPA (which I wrote about on Friday) and its potential effects on internet.


And now, peak Gingrich

This year's Republican primary race has to be the strangest in recent history.

As this graph of poll averages from Real Clear Politics shows, the party continues its lurching from one non-Romney to another, with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich having their peaks of support, while that of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul maintain steady but at low levels, and Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman are also steady but almost non-existent. And of course, at one time we had The Donald, the effects of whose brief cameo appearance is not recorded

RCP poll.png

It says a lot about the modern Republican party that such a repulsive opportunist blowhard like Newt Gingrich is being touted as a clever person, a man of ideas. For a party that has turned its back on science and knowledge in general, their embrace of Gingrich, a man who oozes contempt for everyone else, requires some explaining. I think Paul Krugman was right when he said: "He's a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." Republicans seem to be impressed by cocky smart mouths (Sarah Palin being the poster child), and repelled by people with real knowledge and expertise.

gingrich-smartest-guy-in-the-world.gif

The person who has the most reason to be righteously aggrieved by this parade of successive contenders to Romney is Rick Santorum, who must have hoped that his smug religiosity, devotion to the oligarchy, and homophobia would appeal to the not-insignificant bloc of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals in the party. Every time the leading non-Romney stumbled, his hopes must have been raised of being anointed the next flag bearer, only to see others being awarded the prize. One can almost hear him wailing in prayer in his lonely hotel room in Iowa, "Why have you forsaken me, Lord? When will it be my turn?"

December 02, 2011

Non-religious Aussies

Jerry Coyne flags an interesting report that says that the level of disbelief in god and religion in Australia approaches the high level of Scandinavian countries.

The high level of religiosity of the US is becoming more and more of an outlier among developed countries. This kind of anachronism cannot last.

Who are you going to believe in?

Jesus or Dr. Who? [Link corrected]

(Thanks to reader Grace)

No wonder young people are leaving the church…

… when churches do things like this.

The national attention paid to a small church in a remote area disapproving of interracial couples is actually a sign of progress. Just a generation or two ago, such an action would have been seen as not being particularly noteworthy.

Hypocrisy on freedom of speech

A new threat to freedom of speech on the internet has appeared in the form of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect-IP Act (PIPA) that enables the Attorney General, in response to complaints from big business, to shut down websites with little notice.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes SOPA as the "blacklist bill" because it would "allow the U.S. government and private corporations to create a blacklist of censored websites, and cut many more off from their ad networks and payment providers."

That means the Attorney General would have the power to cut off select websites from search engines like Google. It could also cut off advertisers and payment processors like Visa from the sites. The Attorney General could essentially kill all of a site's traffic and revenue in a matter of days.

SOPA only allows targeted sites five days to submit an appeal. That doesn't leave much time for them to defend themselves before losing their site and their revenue altogether.

Due to opposition, the SOPA billed seems to have stalled (for now at least). Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is promising a filibuster of PIPA, but it is not clear if he will be successful.

It is this kind of internet censorship that is righteously deplored by the US government when it is practiced by other countries. See for example, Joe Biden in a speech at the recent London Conference on Cyberspace give the kind of ringing endorsement of internet freedom that his own government is seeking to suppress in the form of SOPA and PIPA.

On February 15, 2011 Hillary Clinton gave a stirring speech at George Washington University on the importance of respecting the right of freedom of speech and the free flow of information. During the speech, 71-year old Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and currently a member of Veterans for Peace, stood up and turned his back. For this simple symbolic act of protest, he was forcibly dragged out of the auditorium, resulting in bruising, all while Clinton (like John Kerry in the infamous 2007 taser incident) said absolutely nothing but continued blathering about the importance of the freedom of speech. McGovern was taken to jail and fingerprinted before being released. As is often the case, charges were initially brought against McGovern in order to give a patina of legitimacy to this act of suppression of peaceful protest, and then quietly dropped when the media stopped paying attention. Kevin Zeese describes the events and McGovern was interviewed about it on Democracy Now!.

Clinton also found time to lecture Russia on the need to protect human rights.

"I think all of these issues -imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings - is something that is hurtful to see from the outside," she told Echo of Moscow radio.

"Every country has its criminal elements, people who try to abuse power. But in the last 18 months... there have been many of these incidents.

"I think we want the government to stand up and say this is wrong." [My italics]

Of course, she could easily have been talking about the Obama administration of which she is a part. Drone killings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the black sites the CIA operates all over the world, the torture and deaths that occur in all these facilities are things that in the future we will look back with shame. At least I hope we do, unless we have become so desensitized that nothing our government does in our name is worthy of condemnation.

I think that I could if I wanted to spend my entire time on this blog documenting the hypocrisy of the Obama administration on various issues of principle. The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the choices that the Democratic party faced in the 2008 primaries, and that John Kerry was the 2004 nominee, shows how wretched the system is.

December 01, 2011

The difference between scientific and religious ways of thinking

how religions argue.jpg

(Via Pharyngula.)

Ask an Atheist panel discussion at 7:00 pm today

For more details, see here.

African-American atheists

The New York Times had an interesting article (which for some reason was in its Fashion & Style section) about the growing open atheism in the black community, one that has traditionally been seen as more religious and more disapproving of atheism than the population at large.

The article says that less than one-half of one percent of African-Americans are atheist, much lower than for whites. It is possible that the fraction is as large as that of white atheists but that the greater taboos against it meant that they kept quiet about their disbelief and even went with their families to church just to avoid making waves. A young man said that his mother was more bothered by his revelation that he was an atheist than that he was gay, another issue which the black community tries to keep under wraps.

Some of them have been quite outspoken about their views that Christianity should be rejected. The article mentions someone named Wrath James White who has a blog called Words of Wrath where he denounces African-Americans' "zealous embracement of the God of our kidnapper, murders, slave masters and oppressors." He goes on to say that "In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who ... contributes to society and supports his family."

But the internet is changing all that. People are realizing that wherever you are, there are atheists all around you who are just like you. The comments to the NYT article are worth reading because they reveal many other people who are rejoicing in this newfound openness and were glad to see an article in a mainstream publication acknowledging their existence. The internet and social networking sites have allowed them to join up and form communities of their own, and more and more are speaking out openly about their disbelief.

How the government colludes with the rich

News reports are emerging that when the financial collapse was about to happen in the summer of 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave inside information on what the government was planning to do to a small group of insider investors who were in a position to take advantage of the news. Even they were shocked that he was telling them this.

He delivered that information to a group of men capable of profiting from any disclosure.

Around the conference room table were a dozen or so hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street executives -- at least five of them alumni of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., of which Paulson was chief executive officer and chairman from 1999 to 2006. In addition to Eton Park founder Eric Mindich, they included such boldface names as Lone Pine Capital LLC founder Stephen Mandel, Dinakar Singh of TPG-Axon Capital Management LP and Daniel Och of Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we are now learning how the Federal Reserve secretly committed even more money to the big banks (to the tune of $7.77 trillion!) than was publicly reported, all while hiding it from the public and Congress. (To get a sense of how large this is, remember that the entire GDP of the US is about $14 trillion.) This enabled the banks to make $13 billion in profits all the while successfully lobbying against government regulations to control the reckless behavior that resulted in the crash in the first place. "The six biggest U.S. banks [JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley], which received $160 billion of TARP funds, borrowed as much as $460 billion from the Fed, measured by peak daily debt calculated by Bloomberg using data obtained from the central bank."

Glenn Greenwald writes about how the Fed refused to reveal the names of the banks even when it was thought that the amount loaned was 'only' $1.2 trillion.

In particular, watch this 5-minute video of Alan Grayson from early 2009 grilling the Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, Donald Kohn, as Grayson demanded to know how much the Fed loaned and to which institutions, while Kohn refused to provide that information (absurdly claiming that such transparency would prevent banks from wanting to borrow in the future: in light of the disclosures today, does anyone believe banks will no longer borrow from the Fed?).

I have the feeling that the true amount the Fed committed may be even greater than the $7.77 trillion. The veil of secrecy under which the Fed has been allowed to act needs to be stripped away.

Meanwhile Matt Taibbi reports on how US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has finally put a stop to the long-standing practice of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is the government agency that is supposed to monitor and regulate the financial industry, arranging sweetheart deals with the institutions that it is supposedly overseeing. How it works is that when a firm is found to have committed some violation of the law, the SEC and the firm arrange a plea deal in which the company does not accept wrongdoing, pays a fine that is often much less than the amount of fraud they committed, and the information of what they did is not revealed. The SEC and the firm then get the deal approved by a judge. As Taibbi says:

Imagine if normal criminal defendants were treated this way. Say a prosecutor and street criminal come into a judge's chamber and explain they've cooked up a deal, that the criminal doesn't have to admit to anything or plead to any crime, but has to spend 18 months in house arrest nonetheless.

What sane judge would sign off on a deal like that without knowing exactly what the facts are? Did the criminal shoot up a nightclub and paralyze someone, or did he just sell a dimebag on the street? Is 18 months a tough sentence or a slap on the wrist? And how is it legally possible for someone to deserve an 18-month sentence without being guilty of anything?

Such deals are logical and legal absurdities, but judges have been signing off on settlements like this with Wall Street defendants for years.

But Judge Rakoff has said that this kind of thing must stop.

Rakoff's 15-page final ruling read like a political document, serving not just as a rejection of this one deal but as a broad and unequivocal indictment of the regulatory system as a whole. He particularly targeted the SEC's longstanding practice of greenlighting relatively minor fines and financial settlements alongside de facto waivers of civil liability for the guilty – banks commit fraud and pay small fines, but in the end the SEC allows them to walk away without admitting to criminal wrongdoing.

This practice is a legal absurdity for several reasons. By accepting hundred-million-dollar fines without a full public venting of the facts, the SEC is leveling seemingly significant punishments without telling the public what the defendant is being punished for. This has essentially created a parallel or secret criminal justice system, in which both crime and punishment are adjudicated behind closed doors.

But this is just one judge. The SEC and the crooked firms have the option of 'judge shopping', taking their case before judges whom they think will be sympathetic to such deals. Until more judges take this stand, the government and Wall Street's collusion in ripping off the public will continue.