The doomsday machine was (and is) real

December 7, 2017

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of U.S. policy in Vietnam.   Now he has written a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which reveals the history of how close the United States came to all-out nuclear war.

The war policy of President Eisenhower was “massive retaliation.”   That meant the only U.S. response to Soviet or Chinese aggression would be all-out nuclear war.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went to the brink of war at least three times, Life magazine reported at the time.  There was even an argument during the Kennedy-Nixon debates as to whether nuclear war would be justified if the Chinese government took over the tiny coastal islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

That was known at the time.  What wasn’t known was that the authority to order a nuclear strike was delegated to military commanders in the field.   We the people thought the decision rested solely with the President.  That wasn’t so.

U.S. plans called for the complete destruction of every city in Russia and China.   Pentagon planners told Ellsberg that this would result in 325 million casualties in Russia and China, plus an additional 100 million in Communist-ruled countries in eastern Europe, 100 million in neutral countries and 100 million among western European allies.

As Ellsberg said, this is the equivalent of 100 Holocausts.  It doesn’t include the number who would die as a result of Soviet retaliation.

Evidently it was thought necessary to credibly threaten to destroy Europe in order to defend it.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s ideas about escalation during the Kennedy administration can be seen as an attempt to create an alternative to immediate massive retaliation.

But while, in a way, well-intended, McNamara’s ideas were illogical.  Once launching a nuclear war is an option, the logic of game theory says you should be the first and not the second to escalate to nuclear warfare.

Ellsberg said every Cold War President through Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave military theater commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons.   He doesn’t know the situation now.

One difference is that U.S. presidents now threaten nuclear attacks against countries without nuclear weapons—a crime against humanity in and of itself, even if you don’t consider the deaths of neutrals and allies.

The U.S. government should join with the Russian government to resume the process of gradual elimination of nuclear weapons that was begun in the Reagan-Gorbachev years.   In the meantime, Congress should enact a law to forbid a U.S. nuclear first strike without a formal declaration of war.

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The cost of the Republican tax plan

December 4, 2017

Click to enlarge.  Source: Slate Star Codex

LINKS

The Brazen Cynicism of the Republican Tax Plan by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Republicans are weaponizing the tax code by Mike Konczal for Vox.

The Tax Bill Compared to Other Very Expensive Things by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Is it wrong to give to panhandlers?

December 2, 2017

The gift without the giver is bare.
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three —
himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.
         ==James Russell Lowell

It’s only during the past few years that I’ve started to give money to beggars.   Prior to that I budgeted certain sums of money for charity, including St. Joseph’s House and the House of Mercy, which serve the homeless poor and felt I had done my duty.

I don’t hold myself up as an example of how to give or how to live.   I am not saying you should give away anything at all—even assuming that you are well enough off that you have extra money to give.

I only say that if you act on a generous impulse, this is nothing to be ashamed of.

It is necessary to say this because of the prevailing neoliberal philosophy, exemplified in the Freakonomics books, that if you act on any motive except self-interest, this will backfire and you will do more harm than good.

These arguments came up in a reading group I belong to, currently reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   It begins with the Ebenezer Scrooge character refusing to contribute to a charity that buys Christmas dinners for poor people.

Scrooge says he pays taxes that pay for prisons and workhouses, where poor, unemployed people are sent.  He sees himself as a hard-working, self-supporting citizen, and sees no reason why he should contribute to support people who don’t work.

Some of us thought he had a point.  We also thought that giving to panhandlers was enabling alcohol and drug abuse habits.   One person even told a story about a street beggar in Washington, D.C., who was later found to have a vacation home in Florida.

I’ll use this blog to say what I should have said then.

First, panhandlers work.  They work hard.  I’ve never in my life worked as hard as they do, and for as little return.   Would you like to spend all day on the street, in all weathers, approaching strangers for money, risking humiliation and getting only small change or, at best, small bills in return?

It is true that panhandlers do no useful work.   But they are not unique in that respect.  Consider telemarketers, for example.   Some people are richly rewarded for doing harm.  Consider hedge fund managers and their role in the 2008 financial crash.

David Graeber wrote a good essay about the growing number of well-paid jobs that are considered meaningless even by people who do them.   He said as a general rule, the more obviously one’s benefits other people, the less likely one will be well paid for it

I myself get income without work, and more than a panhandler is likely to get.   I enjoy a Social Security pension, a company pension and income from savings and investments.

I could say the Social Security and company pensions are rewards for past work, although plenty of people who worked just as hard and created just as much value as I did receive no pensions.

But the income from savings and investments is simply a claim on the fruits of someone else’s labor.  Buying publicly traded stocks and bonds, in my case, in the form of mutual funds, adds nothing to the world’s total wealth.   It simply reflects the fact that, at a certain time in my life, I had more money than I needed.

I am not ashamed of investing in stocks and bonds.   A well-functioning free enterprise economy requires financial markets, and it might as well be me as somebody else who benefits from them.

But a well-functioning free enterprise system also requires that a certain percentage of people be unemployed.  Economists have a name for this, “the natural rate of unemployment.”

As to drug and alcohol abuse habits, these are found on all levels of society, including Hollywood and Wall Street.   In any case, if some panhandler has an alcohol or drug problem, the person isn’t going to change their life just because I refuse to give them anything.

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A parable of the lesser evil

December 1, 2017

An alien monster beamed Joe and Jim up to its spaceship, and offered them a choice—be put down on a planet with a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees or a planet with a surface temperature of 10,000 degrees.

Joe said, “Given those alternatives, I have no option but to choose the 1,000-degree planet.”

Jim said, “That’s no choice at all!  I refuse to consent to either alternative!”

Enraged, the alien monster sent them both to the 10,000-degree planet.

In the micro-seconds before he expired, Joe turned to Jim and said, “This is all your fault.”

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Am I being unpatriotic when I link to RT News?

November 30, 2017

RT News and Sputnik International are news services funded by the Russian government.   They are said to be waging “information warfare” against the United States.

RT America and Sputnik International have been ordered to register as foreign agents, the only foreign news services that have been ordered to do so.  What this means is that they will be required to disclose their sources of funds and other details of their operations.

The FBI is investigating Sputnik.  Google has changed its algorithm to “de-rank” RT and Sputnik in Google searches.  Twitter has banned advertising by RT and Google.

None of these things prevent RT or Sputnik from reporting their version of the news or making their reports available to Americans.   We’re not like the old Soviet Union, where you could be arrested for listening to the Voice of America.

And, in one respect, the United States is more liberal than the Russian federation.  Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America lost their Russian broadcast licenses in 2012 and 2014, but Sputnik still has a radio station in Washington, D.C.

The anti-Russia campaign is intended to brand Americans as unpatriotic if they work for RT or Sputnik, appear on their programs or even watch their programs.

I’ve linked to RT News videos in previous posts.  What does that make me?  Am I unpatriotic?

I think an American who listens to or watches RT or Sputnik is like a Russian who watches or listens to the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.   The U.S. government has an ulterior motive in funding these two news services.   At the same time, they provide Russians with information and ideas they wouldn’t get from their domestic broadcasters.

Established U.S. broadcasters have a limited range of viewpoints they regard as acceptable.   I never noticed this until my own thinking moved outside the range of the acceptable.   So if there’s something on RT News I think is interesting or worthwhile, even though it might not be acceptable to PBS or CNN, I’ll link to it..    That’s my right as a free American.

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Modernization has created an angry world

November 29, 2017

I think the world is locked into struggle between a heartless corporate neoliberalism and a rage-filled blood-and-soil nationalism, neither of which offers hope for the human future.

Pankaj Mishra, author of AGE OF ANGER (2017), said this is part of a conflict of ideas that originated with Voltaire and Rousseau in the 18th century and is still going on, all over the world, today.

Voltaire taught that if you give up your outworn prejudices, superstitions and customs, and embrace science, reason and commerce, you will gain the power to determine the course of your life, as well as enjoy a rising material standard of living.

His enemy, Rousseau, spoke for all those who were angry because this bargain was not kept, or because they rejected the bargain in the first place.

They included millions of people in Europe and North America in the 19th century and also billions in Asia and Africa in the 20th and 21st, who have been uprooted from village communities and left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving global economy.

Voltaire, although a brave defender of religious and intellectual freedom, despised the ignorant masses.  He admired “enlightened” despots, such as Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, for trying to force their unwilling subjects to adopt modern—that is, French—ways of life.

Rousseau cared nothing for modernization.  His ideal was an imaginary Sparta, an austere, primitive and close-knit society of brave warriors.   He thought it unimportant that Spartan warriors were predatory and merciless to others.  What mattered was their comradeship with each other, and also their manliness.

Another theme of Rousseau, in contrast to Voltaire, is the need for manliness and the corresponding need to keep women in their place.   Once again, this is an example of Rousseau wanting something he didn’t have.  He was never able to fulfill the traditional role of the male, which is to be a protector and provider for women and children.

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The knowledge illusion

November 28, 2017

Hat tip to Bill Elwell

LINK

The Myth of Independent Thought by Charles Chu for Medium.   The last paragraph reveals that Chu is promoting a product, but his argument is interesting even though his sale pitch isn’t compelling.

A working man runs without big money backers

November 27, 2017

Randy Bryce, an iron worker who has never held public office except in his union, is running for Congress against Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in 2018.

The odds are against him.  Ryan beat his Democratic opponent by 35 percentage points in 2016.

But Bryce has raised more money – $1.74 million – than any other Democratic congressional candidate at this point, and it’s all or mostly in donations of $22 or less.

Times are changing.   Nowadays you can run for office and have a chance to win, without being a rich person and without being beholden to rich people.

LINKS

When a Political Endorsement Actually Means Something – Bernie Sanders and Randy Bryce on Down With Tyranny!

Can “the Iron Stache” really take down Paul Ryan? by Tim Murphy for Mother Jones.

Why the FCC proposes to eliminate Net Neutrality

November 27, 2017

Doug Muder wrote an excellent post on today’s The Weekly Sift about how the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to end Net Neutrality will enable monopolists to dominate the Internet.

Long story short: Net Neutrality means that Internet service providers operate like telephone companies.  Anybody can phone anywhere who is connected to the system, and every ISP charges its customers the same rates..   The end of Net Neutrality means that they operate like cable TV companies.  You would have to accept whatever restriction they choose to impose.

Muder shows how the end of Net Neutrality ties in with the growth of business monopoly and how this ties in with the growth of economic inequality.

I strongly recommend reading Muder’s article, but I have a couple of graphics below that also explain the issue, although not in as great a depth.

LINK

The Looming End of Net Neutrality (and why you should care) by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

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Law should forbid U.S. nuclear first strike

November 24, 2017

Few Americans are still alive who have a living memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.   Maybe that’s why so little attention is paid to the danger of nuclear war, unlike in the 1950s and 1960s.

The purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter an attack by a foreign country with nuclear weapons, although the U.S. government has never renounced the option of a nuclear first strike, such as in the event of a Red Army invasion of western Europe.

But now President Donald Trump talks about using nuclear weapons to enforce his ultimatums against North Korea.  A nuclear attack on North Korea would be a crime against humanity.  An attack, or the threat of attack, might tempt North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, to pre-emptively attack the United States or its allies, figuring that he has nothing to lose.

Senator Ed Markey, D-MA, and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-CA, introduced bills in September, 2016, forbidding a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.   When they introduced those bills, it looked as if someone other that Donald Trump would be President in 2017, so they are more than merely anti-Trump.

Senator Bob Corker, R-TN, held hearings earlier this month on the possibility of a first nuclear strike by a U.S. President.   The best hope the witnesses could offer was that the military would not obey an illegal order.

A first strike would be a violation of international law, but the military chain of command might not regard international law as binding.   Legislation is needed to make a nuclear attack a legal crime as well as a moral crime.

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How the Trump administration governs

November 24, 2017

Source: Real News Network.  Click to enlarge.

If you are a president or governor who believes that government doesn’t work, you staff your administration with people who don’t want government to work, and your belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   This didn’t begin with Donald Trump and won’t end with Donald Trump.

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Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit and social class

November 21, 2017

I read Little Dorrit as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.   Reading the novel as part of group helped me appreciate how great Charles Dickens was—as a descriptive writer, as a storyteller and as a student of human nature.

The moral center of the novel is Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshalsea, a famous debtors’ prison in London, where her father has been imprisoned as a result of business failure.

She is called ‘Little’ Dorrit, rather than by her name, because she is small of stature and looks more like an adolescent girl than a full-grown woman.

She embodies the specifically Christian virtues.  She is loving, self-sacrificing, humble, forgiving, patient, devoted, uncomplaining and thankful for every blessing.  This makes her as out-of-place in class-conscious Victorian London as she would have been in the Rome of Quo Vadis or in success-seeking 21st century USA.

One of the themes of Little Dorrit is what we now would call “classism.”   The novel is full of characters whose life revolves around having other people acknowledge their social rank.   This includes, first and foremost, Little Dorrit’s own family

From a young age, she is a virtual parent to her father and her older brother and sister, for which they show little or no gratitude..  She learns how to read and write, learns marketable skills from other inmates and gets a job outside the prison to an elderly rich businesswoman, Mrs. Clennam.

Her father, William Dorrit, over the years creates an identity as “the Father of the Marshalsea,” to whom visitors and other debtors have to pay tribute and acknowledge his superior status.

Despite William’s dependence on Little Dorrit, he condemns her for befriending fellow inmates, such as the mentally retarded Maggie, because this undermines his pretensions to superior social rank.

Amy’s beautiful gold-digging older sister, Fanny, and shiftless older brother, Edward, take the same attitude.

Mrs. Clennam is the other character in the novel whose life is shaped by religion.  In contrast to Little Dorrit’s, her religion consists in obeying strict rules concerning personal conduct and business obligations, and in showing no mercy to those who do not.

Her religion makes her unhappy, and causes her to make others unhappy.

Little Dorrit is sometimes sad, but she is capable of being happy and she does nothing to make herself unhappy.

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Hellgrammites

November 18, 2017

Hellgrammites were much prized as bait when I was growing up in western Maryland along the Potomac River, but I never knew exactly what they were.   Now I do.

LINK

What the Heck Is a Hellgrammite? by Jeffrey Hahn for the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Robots will not (necessarily) replace us

November 15, 2017

You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—And Sooner Than You Think, argues Kevin Drum in Mother Jones.

His argument is simple.  Historically, computing power doubles every couple of years.   There is no reason to think this will stop anytime soon.   So at some point the capability of artificial intelligence will exceed the capability of human intelligence.  Machines will be able to do any kind of job, including physician, artist or chief executive officer, better than a human being can.

This will happen gradually, then, as AI doubles the last few times, suddenly.

When that happens, humanity will be divided into a vast majority who serve no economic function, and a tiny group of capitalists who own the means of production.   Rejection of automation is not an option, according to Drum.   It only means that your nation will be unable to compete with nations that embrace it.

The only question, according to Drum, is whether the wealthy capitalists will have enough vision to give the rest of us enough of an income to survive and to create a market for the products of automation.

I have long believed that automation is driven as much by administrators’ desire for command and control as it is by the drive for economic efficiency.   An automated customer service hotline does not provide better service, but it eliminates the need to deal with pesky and contentious human beings.

I also believe that, in the short run, the danger is not that computer algorithms will surpass human intelligence, but that people in authority will treat them as if they do.

Drum presents interesting information, new to me, about the amazing progress of machine intelligence in just the past few years.   But that’s not necessary to his argument.

His argument is based on continuation of exponential growth and (unstated) continuation of the current economic system, which works for the benefit of high-level executives and administrators and of holders of financial assets at the expense of the rest of us.

There’s no law of physics that says development of technology has to result in higher unemployment.  Under a different system of incentives and ownership, technology could be used to expand the capability of workers and to make work more pleasant and fulfilling.

To the extent that automation eliminated boring and routine jobs, it could free up people to work in human services—in schools, hospitals, nursing homes—and in the arts and sciences.

Technology does not make this impossible.   Our current economic structure does.   Our current economic structure was created by human decisions, and can be changed by human decisions.  Technological determinism blinds us to this reality.

George McGovern and the path not taken

November 14, 2017

George McGovern in 1972 tried to unite the old New Deal liberalism and the New Left radicalism.

He courted African-Americans, feminists, college students, gays and lesbians, environmentalists and peace advocates, while at the same time promising to close tax loopholes for the rich and using the money to grant property tax relief for middle class Americans.

George McGovern in 1972

All the issues he campaigned on—especially economic inequality—have become every more relevant today.

Yet he went down to defeat, and all the Democratic candidates from then did their best to distance themselves from McGovernism.   He was supposedly the Democratic counterpart to Barry Goldwater.

But while Goldwater’s followers reacted to their defeat by doubling down on their beliefs and going on to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Democratic leaders—Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—have run away from the supposed taint of McGovernism.

I think the difference between the legacy of Goldwater and the legacy of McGovern is that Goldwater’s movement had the support of wealthy individuals and corporations, and McGovern’s didn’t.

McGovern at the start of 1972 was as little known as Bernie Sanders at the start of 2016.   Odds-makers gave him a 200 in 1 chance of winning the Democratic nomination.   When he did win, the Democratic Party as an institution did not support him.   President Nixon meanwhile stole the Democrats’ thunder, by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, calling for a guaranteed annual income and announcing that peace was at hand in Vietnam.

President Nixon discredited himself in the Watergate affair, and Democrats rebounded.   But the Democrats did not offer a credible alternative to Republican policies, and could not hold on to power.  Thus began a political cycle that continued ever since, of voters swinging back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates while the condition of the country grows worse.

The national figure today who comes closest to resembling George McGovern is Bernie Sanders—a Senator from a small state who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead a movement.

The top leaders of the Democratic Party are as hostile to Sanders’ followers as they were to McGovern’s 45 years ago, but the Sanders followers seem to have more staying power than their predecessors.

Even Bernie Sanders is not really a peace candidate, as George McGovern was.   That is the forgotten part of McGovern’s legacy that we need the most.

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What made the ‘angry young men’ so angry?

November 14, 2017

I read John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The play consists mainly of diatribes by the central character, Jimmy Porter, against virtually everything in 1950s British life.  He is especially abusive toward his long-suffering wife, Allison.   When she tells him she is pregnant, he says he hopes the baby will be born dead—which, it so happens, it is.   Porter shows no consideration for his loyal friend Cliff.

We in Walter’s play-reading group all thought Jimmy was despicable.  We saw him as a textbook case of an abusive husband.

Yet at the time theater audiences responded to his rage.  Look Back in Anger was one of the most successful plays of its season, and made Osborne’s reputation.

Osborne was one of a group of novelists and playwrights called the “angry young men.”

They were sons of working-class or lower-class parents. They were the beneficiaries of the new British welfare state.   They had economic and educational opportunities far above their parents’ generation.

Why weren’t they grateful?  What made them so angry?

A clue can be found in the two people to whom Jimmy Porter gives unreserved love and affection.   One is dying elderly lower-class woman who bequeathed Jimmy a “sweet stall,” where he can make a living by selling snacks to passers-by.  This spares him the indignity of working for a boss.

The old woman dies alone except for Jimmy, and he is the only one to attend her funeral.   His wife Allison thinks it strange he could care about such a marginal person.   “Jimmy seems to adore her principally because she’s been poor all her life,” the wife says, “and she’s frankly ignorant.”

The other is Jimmy’s own father, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, who came home from the war a broken man and died within a year.   Jimmy says that he, at the age of 10, was the only one who cared enough about his father to sit at his bedside and listen to him in the last year of his life.

He says the family sent the father a monthly check, but all of them, including his mother, thought of him as a loser and an embarrassment, and were glad to see the last of him.   Some 15 or more years later, Jimmy still hasn’t forgiven them.

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Global warming and local freezing

November 13, 2017

Double click to enlarge

Source: The Real News Network

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How long can they put their heads in the sand?

November 12, 2017

Double click to enlarge

Source: Real News Network.

“Reality,” according to the SF writer Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

“You can ignore reality,” the philosopher Ayn Rand reportedly said, “but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

How long can members of the Trump administration ignore the reality of climate change?

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Bertrand Russell on war and utopia

November 11, 2017

The following is from Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916)

A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life.  Without imagination and love of adventure, a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional.  The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy.  It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil.  The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull….[Utopians] do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment.  Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity.  Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature.  They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.

Hat tip to Marginal REVOLUTION

Sexual abuse more common than I like to admit

November 10, 2017

I can’t get my mind around the number of prominent people who have been credibly accused of rape and sexual abuse, including rape and sexual abuse of minors.  They seem to be in all walks of life and reflect the full spectrum political and religious beliefs.   The world is a very different place from what I want to believe it is.

Not everybody accused of sex crimes or sex abuse is guilty.   People have gone to prison or had their lives ruined on false sex charges.

I know many highly moral college professors and business executives make it a rule to never talk to a female student or subordinate behind closed doors or without a witness present.   I know of someone whose life was almost ruined by a false charge of sexual abuse.   I don’t discount the danger of hysteria and over-reaction.

But recent high-profile scandals—Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Leon Wieseltier, Harvey Weinstein—make it impossible to pretend that sexual abuse is rare or exceptional.

I am—or have been—part of the problem.   I turned a blind eye to evidence of Bill Clinton’s abuse of Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and other women.   I wanted him to defeat the Republicans in the 1992 election, and so I just refused to think about what he had done.

Supporters of Donald Trump in last year’s election did the same thing as I did then.  It’s time to stop tolerating and making excuses for sexual abuse.

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John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

November 8, 2017

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.

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The Trump administration vs. rural Americans

November 8, 2017

Rural America is Trump country.   The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the federal department that does the most to help rural Americans.    A writer in Vanity Fair magazine reported on how the Trump administration is gutting the USDA, and will probably get away with it, because most Americans don’t know what the USDA does.

When I think of the USDA, I think of the Agricultural Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which help and encourage to adopt best practices, and its crop subsidy programs, which, unfortunately, mainly benefit big agri-business corporations.

The fact is, as the Vanity Fair writer pointed out, that 70 percent of the USDA budget goes to programs to relieve hunger—food stamps, subsidies for school lunches, a program to assure proper nutrition to new mothers and infants and a dozen or so smaller programs.

The USDA conducts scientific research into food security, nutrition, food safety and plant-based fuel.   All these require taking global warming into account, which is unacceptable to the Trump appointees.

Other examples of the USDA’s many functions are inspection of meat animals and fighting forest fires.

The program of most benefit to ordinary people in rural communities are grants and loans for rural development, helping start-up businesses and local government projects that otherwise wouldn’t get started.

The political problem is the contradiction between rural America’s culture of self-reliance and fact of dependence on government.   This contradiction is resolved by hiding the source of funding.   Most people who benefit from USDA grants and loans are told that the help is coming from the local government or bank.   So when the grants and loans dry up, they won’t know why.

LINK

Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

Tax havens are big business

November 7, 2017

Research by the economist Gabriel Zucman shows that tax havens are big business.   He concludes that they substantially increase the after-tax income of the top 0.01 percent of the world’s population and that they enable U.S. and other corporations to evade taxes on nearly half their income from foreign operations.

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Offshore wealth as % of GDP.  Source: Gabriel Zucman. Click to enlarge.

Zucman is a respected economist  I’m not able to evaluate his estimates based on my own knowledge, or to meaningfully compare his figures with those of the Tax Justice Network and other sources.   But there’s no doubt that ultra-rich individuals and powerful corporations are able to keep a lot of their wealth hidden from view.

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John Pilger on Clinton and Assange

November 7, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Julian Assange (Reuters)

The Australian journalist John Pilger wrote a good article about Hillary Clinton’s book tour of Australia and her vicious attacks on Julian Assange.

Clinton has made herself rich and powerful by serving the interests of militarists and plutocrats.  Assange has effectively lost his freedom, and may well end his life in prison, for revealing the secrets of militarists and plutocrats.

Yet Clinton has been able to persuade journalists that she is a victim and that Assange is her persecutor.

I find it amazing that Assange has never yet been shown to have published any material that turned out to be bogus.   That is more than the New York Times and Washington Post can claim.

LINK

Clinton, Assange and the War on Truth by John Pilger for teleSUR.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

A new look at the secret hoards of the ultra-rich

November 6, 2017

Remember the Panama Papers?  That was a massive leak of documents from a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonsecka, revealing how the world’s richest and most powerful people hid billions of collars in investments from tax collectors and the public.

Now there is another big leak—called the Paradise Papers—from century-old Bermuda-based law firm called Appleby and its Singapore affiliate.

Like the Panama Papers, the anonymous leaker sent documents to a German newspaper called Süeddeutsche Zeitung, which teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and some of the world’s other top newspapers, and spent a year going through 13.4 million files.

Some of the highlights of what was found:

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s investment manager, the Duchy of Lancaster, invested millions of pounds in a Cayman Islands fund, whose investments included Bright House, a rent-to-own UK furniture company that charged interest rates of up to 99%
  • Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who divested himself of ownership in 80 companies to avoid conflicts of interest, kept interests in nine offshore companies.  Four of them invested in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings, which did business with a Russian energy and chemical company called Sibur, whose key owners include Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Russian oligarch under U.S. sanctions.
  • Stephen Bronfman, a key fund-raiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, teamed up with key Liberal Party figures to evade Canadian, U.S. and Isreali taxes.

Major companies shown to do business through tax havens are Apple, Nike, Uber Barclay’s Bank, Goldman Sachs, BNP Paribas and Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader.

None of this is, in itself, illegal.  But hidden offshore investments provide a way for criminals to launder money and for individuals, companies and governments to evade economic sanctions by the U.S. and other governments.

As several people have remarked, the worst scandals are not how the law is broken, but what can be done that is perfectly legal.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is evidence that the Russian government or Russian interests manipulated the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump,

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