Archive for October, 2011

The dirt devil exorcist

October 31, 2011

Hat tip to The Browser.

Immigration is a moral issue

October 30, 2011

My refrigerator is covered with pictures of family, friends, children, library receipts and my son’s artwork.  However in Arizona, parents who are undocumented are clearing their refrigerators and placing prominently on them a single sheet of paper.  This one piece of paper tells social services what to do with their children if they are arrested.

==The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray

The Unitarian Universalist Association has recommended “immigration as a moral issue” as a study-action issue for its congregations for 2010-2014.  On Saturday, I attended a social justice conference Saturday at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y.,  sponsored by the UUA St. Lawrence District.

The principal speaker at the conference was the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, parish minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and part of the UU Immigration ministry.  Others were Diane Chappell-Daly, an immigration lawyer from Syracuse; David Friedman, a St. Lawrence district trustee; and Pacho Lane, an American who identifies with Mexican culture and nationalism.

I learned things I didn’t know.  One is the cruel manner in which unauthorized Mexican migrants are deported.  Immigration authorities confiscate their property, including medications, cell phones, all forms of ID and any cash above $15, and deport them to a city in Mexico where they’ve never been.  Husbands are separated from wives, and parents from children.  Sometimes legal residents or even American citizens are caught up in these sweeps because they happen to be without proper documentation.  Reasonable people may differ about overall immigration policy, but no decent person can think this is right.

“Illegal immigrant” is a misleading term.  To reside in the United States without proper authorization is not a violation of American criminal law, although it is a crime to re-enter the United States once you have been deported.  “Undocumented migrant” is inaccurate, since many have documents; it is just that the documents are expired or invalid.  Arizona’s hard immigration law is not just a restatement of federal law.  It goes beyond federal law.

Frederick-Gray pointed out that until 1924, there were no restrictions on crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.  For many decades after that, Border Patrol enforcement was lax, and people routinely crossed back and forth.

During the past 10 or so years, there has been a crackdown that has made crossing more dangerous, and therefore more lucrative.  The Mexican drug cartel has taken over the business of smuggling people and combines it with smuggling drugs.

The private prison industry is an important lobby for a crackdown on immigration, and an important employer in Arizona.  In the current bad economy, it may be the only growth industry there.

The best estimate is that there are 12 million unauthorized migrants in the United States, and this can’t help but contribute to the high unemployment rate and depressed wages of American citizens.  The uproar over illegal immigration is perfectly understandable, but deportation is unlikely to change the situation.  The Obama administration is deporting roughly 400,000 unauthorized migrants a year which means that, even if no new migrants enter the United States, it would take 30 years to deport them all.

President Obama has stepped up deportation of unauthorized migrants in hopes of gaining support for a path to citizenship for those remaining in the country.  But such support is not forthcoming.  If Republicans would not support this idea when proposed by President George W. Bush, it is unlikely that President Obama would change their minds.  The best that can be hoped for is the Dream Act, which allows children who grew up in the United States a path to American citizenship.

The focus of the conference was on unauthorized migration from Mexico into the American Southwest, but migrants come from many countries and enter all regions of the United States.  Upstate New York is an important agricultural region, and many farmers employ unauthorized migrants.

It is not that American citizens don’t want to do farm work.  Employers who pay minimummarket wage and obey American labor law can get all the workers they want.  But the economic incentive is to hire workers outside the protection of U.S. law.  Chappell-Daly said U.S. courts have ruled that it is legal for an employer to refuse to pay back wages to an unauthorized migrant.  Somebody in the audience, however, said that the New York Department of Labor will try to get workers the wages they’re owed—if they can find the person after they’ve been deported.


Hallmark sympathy cards for the unemployed

October 29, 2011

It’s a sign of the times, I guess.

Hallmark has a new line of sympathy cards for people who’ve lost their jobs.

Inside: Is there any place I can hack up a hairball, say, on a former employer's head?

Inside: Okay, maybe don't

Inside: Think of it as a time-out between stupid bosses

There are eight cards in all.

Click on Hallmark to see the faces of all eight.

Click on Hallmark is sorry for your loss—your job loss for a CNN report.

Click on Hallmark adds sympathy cards for job loss for a Chicago Tribune article.

The power of the Koch brothers

October 28, 2011

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have a more powerful influence on American politics and policy than many governors and senators.  By my standards, President Barack Obama is a conservative, who has protected and bailed out Wall Street bankers while seeking to undermine Social Security and Medicare.  By theirs, he is a socialist, and they intend to drive the country into an even more extreme pro-corporate direction.  The above video and the following text provide a good report on them.

Charles and David Koch are each worth about $25 billion, which makes them the fourth richest Americans. When you combine their fortunes, they are the third wealthiest people in the world.  Radical libertarians who use their money to oppose government and virtually all regulation as interference with the free market, the Kochs are in a class of their own as players on the American political stage.  Their web of influence in the U.S. stretches from state capitals to the halls of congress in Washington, D.C.

The Koch brothers fueled the conservative Tea Party movement that vigorously opposes Barack Obama, the U.S. president.  They fund efforts to derail action on global warming, and support politicians who object to raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy to help fix America’s fiscal problems.  According to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who wrote a groundbreaking exposé of the Kochs in 2010, they have built a top to bottom operation to shape public policy that has been “incredibly effective. They are so rich that their pockets are almost bottomless, and they can keep pouring money into this whole process.”

Koch industries, the second largest privately-held company in the US, is an oil refining, chemical, paper products and financial services company with revenues of a $100 billion a year.  Virtually every American household has some Koch product—from paper towels and lumber, to Stainmaster carpet and Lycra in sports clothes, to gasoline for cars.  The Kochs’ political philosophy of rolling back environmental and financial regulations is also beneficial to their business interests.

The Kochs rarely talk to the press, and conduct their affairs behind closed doors.  But at a secret meeting of conservative activists and funders the Kochs held in Vail, Colorado this past summer, someone made undercover recordings.  One caught Charles Koch urging participants to dig deep into their pockets to defeat Obama. “This is the mother of all wars we’ve got in the next 18 months,” he says, “for the life or death of this country.” He called out the names of 31 people at the Vail meeting who each contributed more than $1 million over the past 12 months.

In the 2010 congressional elections, the Kochs and their partners spent at least $40 million, helping to swing the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives towards right-wing Tea Party Republicans.  It has been reported that the Kochs are planning to raise and spend more than $200 million to defeat Obama in 2012.  But the brothers could easily kick in more without anyone knowing due to loopholes in U.S. law.


The rise of Theodore Roosevelt

October 28, 2011

I’m interested in the Progressive Era of a century ago because in many ways its issues were the same as those of today—immigration, globalization, foreign military intervention and corrupt relationships between government and monopolistic business.

Theodore Roosevelt, a many-sided, larger-than-life figure, was the leading personality of that era.  I recently finished reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, which deals with TR’s pre-presidential career.  It is as readable as a good novel, and won the Pulitzer Price for 1979.  Morris later wrote Theodore Rex, about TR’s presidency, and Colonel Roosevelt, about his post-presidential career.

Roosevelt would not be considered a progressive today.  He was an imperialist and a warmonger, although, unlike most of today’s warmongers, he was eager to take part in the fighting himself.  He believed in British and American world supremacy, based on the superior qualities of the Anglo-Saxon “race”.

His pre-presidential progressivism consisted mainly in fighting for honest government, and in being willing to speak frankly of “the criminal rich class.”  In that era, mere honesty was important and rare, just as it is today.  It was necessary to break up the corrupt relationship between corporations and government before anything else constructive could be accomplished.

Most Americans know the story of how TR built himself up a weak, asthmatic young boy into a successful college boxer, cowpuncher, big game hunter and volunteer cavalry officer who led the Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

The fact that he was a serious intellectual is not so well known.  He held his own with people like Henry Adams.  All his idle moments were devoted to serious reading.  Once he went on vacation for a month and, to pass the time, wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell.  He wrote 14 books in all.  At least two of his work, The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West, are read by serious historians today.

That’s not all.  He was a rancher who rode with cowboys in roundups.  He was a deputy sheriff who tracked down desperadoes and brought them to justice.  He made contributions to the science of ornithology and the art of taxidermy.  He was one of the founders of the U.S. conservation movement.  He had as wide a range of interests and as powerful an intellect as anyone who ever occupied the White House, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson.

Theodore Roosevelt – he hated to be called “Teddy” – does not fit into today’s liberal vs. conservative, Team Blue vs. Team Red categories.  It is good to be reminded that today’s political divisions are not eternal, and that the political divisions of the past cut across different lines.  It is also good to be reminded of what a real leader is like.


Robert Reich debunks seven big lies

October 28, 2011

Hat tip to The Browser.

Our never-ending presidential campaign

October 27, 2011

I am old enough to remember when Presidential election campaigns started after Labor Day, and the Christmas shopping season started after Thanksgiving.  I get as tired of Presidential campaigns that start 18 months before the election as I do of Christmas shopping seasons that start around Halloween or sooner, but I don’t see what can be done about it.  Both politics and retailing are like an arms race.  If there is an advantage to getting a head start over your rivals, almost everyone will seek that advantage, and those who don’t will fall by the wayside.

Our system of selecting Presidents is directly counter to what the Founders intended.  They thought the office should seek the leader, not the candidate seek the office.  They would be horrified at the sacrifice of time, energy and dignity required of presidential candidates today.  They hoped to avoid a party system, in which members of each party sought to block the other party’s measures and support their own, regardless of merit.

When they wrote the Electoral College into the Constitution, they had in mind an alternate system in which citizens do not vote for candidates, but for electors.  The electors, presumably the leading citizens of the various parts of the United States, were supposed to meet, deliberate and choose as President the best-qualified person.

The only President ever chosen in the way the Founders intended was George Washington.  He did not campaign for office.   Washington was chosen because it was the consensus of the electors that he was the best person for the office.

That system quickly broke down.  In 1800, Federalist electors pledged to John Adams ran against Democratic-Republican electors pledge to Thomas Jefferson.   In the early days of the Republic, candidates were chosen by the congressional caucuses of the parties.  Caucuses were replaced in Andrew Jackson’s time by political party conventions, which were supposed to be more open to public participation.

In a way, the congressional caucuses and party conventions were a substitute for the Electoral College.  Leading political figures from various sections of the country came together and agreed on a candidate.  The public campaign did not begin until they made their choice.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, candidates maintained the convention that they did not seek the offices.  Generally the candidates stayed away from the conventions until a delegation came and notified them of their nominations.   They thought it undignified to actively campaign themselves.  Their supporters did most of the campaigning for them.

Presidential primaries were introduced during the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, but they did not come to control the nominating process until 75 years later.  I remember how the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination went to Gov. Adlai Stevenson, even though Senator Estes Kefauver won a majority of the vote in primaries; leaders such as ex-President Truman dismissed the primaries as a “beauty contest.”  Senator John F. Kennedy’s victories in the 1960 Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries were important not because of the delegate votes he won, but because he showed party leaders that a Catholic could carry predominantly Protestant states.

Today both Democrats and Republicans have presidential primaries in all the states.  This is supposed to open up the process to public participation, but the unintended consequence is to create a need for the individual candidate to be able to raise money for the necessary advertising, publicity and campaign staff to get into the public eye.  The idea that the office should seek the candidate has been forgotten.  The political campaign is an ordeal that many qualified people would not want to go through.

In many ways the present system is worse than the old political machines.  Tammany Hall and Chicago’s Daley machine were corrupt, but at least they did things of tangible value for people in their patronage networks in return for their votes, which today’s media-based campaigners do not.

Sometimes I think we would be better off trying to go back to the original concept of the Electoral College.  Instead of voting for candidates directly, voters would vote for electors – one from each congressional district and two from each state – whose names would appear on the ballot without the names of a pledged candidate.  The electors would then meet and make their choice, which could be someone who had not actively put themself forward.

But as I think it over, I see that it wouldn’t work.  Powerful monied interests would know the sentiments of the individual electors, even if the average voters didn’t.  And the electors would wind up being as beholden to monied interests as candidates are today.

One advantage of the present presidential primary system is that it starts in small states—the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary.  Relative unknown candidates sometimes win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and this gives them the credibility to raise money.

In short, we have a badly flawed system, and all the past attempts to open it up have done nothing or made things worse.  I don’t have good ideas as to what to do to make things better.  Does anybody else?

The has-been

October 27, 2011

Click to enlarge

Click on Candorville for more like this.

High-speed computers put stock markets at risk

October 26, 2011

An estimated 60 percent or more of trading on world stock exchanges is done not by human beings, but by computers executing, in fractions of a second, orders based on complex algorithms that human traders do not fully understand.

There is a name for this: High Frequency Trading.   Andrew Haldane, executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England, said in a speech quoted by New Scientist magazine, that HFT threatens the stability of world financial markets.

High frequency trading algorithms can execute an order in just a few hundred microseconds, rapidly trading shares back and forth in order to quickly eke out profits from minor differences on the various exchanges.  These trades are so fast that the physical location of the computers executing them becomes vital – even being a few hundred kilometers away from the exchange could mean missing out. 

It’s commerce far removed from any ordinary experience, as Haldane illustrated with an every day example: “If supermarkets ran HFT programs, the average household could complete its shopping for a lifetime in under a second.”

Now it seems this lightning-fast trading could come at a cost.  Haldane blamed HFT for causing the “Flash Crash” which occurred on US markets last year, with the Dow Jones losing $1 trillion in just half an hour.  The event was marked by trading oddities such as management consulting firm Accenture shares falling from $40 to $0.01, while auction house Sotheby’s rose from $34 to $99,999.99 – the lowest and highest values permitted by HFT algorithms.

via One Per Cent.

The computers as such aren’t the problem.  The problem is profits per share in high-frequency trading are tiny, so that traders need to buy and sell huge volumes in order to make it worthwhile, and they need to act with lightning speed to get ahead of other traders.

High frequency trading has become so big a business that it overshadows what the financial markets are supposed to do, which is to allocate capital to companies with the greatest potential to produce good products and services.   Instead of looking for well-managed companies or entrepreneurs with good ideas, the high frequency traders devote all their ingenuity to beating the market—a self-defeating purpose, when they are the market.


What about the top 1/100th of 1 percent?

October 26, 2011

The top 10 percent of the American population gets nearly half of the nation’s income.   That’s very unequal.  What the chart above shows is that income is just as unequal within the top 10 percent, the top 1 percent and even the top 1/10th of 1 percent.  Each rectangle represents a segment of the U.S. population, and each human figure represents 1/10,000th of the population (1/100th of 1 percent).  It shows that

  • The top 10 percent of income earners, whose incomes all exceed $109,062 a year, get 48.2 percent of U.S. income.
  • The top 1 percent of income earners, whose incomes all exceed $368,238 a year, get 20.9 percent of U.S. income (which is about two-fifths of the income of the top 10 percent).
  • The top 1/10th of 1 percent of income earners, whose incomes all exceed $1.69 million a year, get 10.3 percent of U.S. income (which is roughly half of the income of the top 1 percent).
  • The top 1/100th of 1 percent of income earners, whose incomes all exceed $9.14 million a year, get 5 percent of U.S. income (which is roughly half of the income of the top 1/10th of 1 percent.)

Most people aren’t aware of this.  Below is a bar chart on the distribution of wealth in the United States, which is even more unequal that distribution of income.  The top bar is the actual distribution of wealth in the United States, the middle bar is what the average American thinks it is, and the bottom bar is what the average American would like it to be.

The bar chart is based on a poll by Michael A. Norton, a psychologist at Harvard Business School, and Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University.   Americans’ ideal distribution approximates the actual distribution of wealth in Sweden, where the top 20 percent own 35 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Norton and Ariely showed people three unlabeled pie charts, one showing completely equal distribution of income among the five income groups, one showing the Swedish distribution and one showing the U.S. distribution.  Forty-seven percent preferred the Swedish distribution, 43 percent preferred absolute equality and only 10 percent thought the actual U.S. distribution was best.  There was no difference between Democrats and Republicans on this.


Gannett’s rich reward for a failed CEO

October 25, 2011

Gannett Co. Inc. owns the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, where I worked from 1974 to 1998.  Newspaper work was good to me, and Gannett was good to me, but I’m glad I was able to retire when I did.  I am reminded why I’m glad as I read this by David Carr in the New York Times.

Craig A. Dubow

Craig A. Dubow resigned as Gannett’s chief executive [on Oct. 6].  His short six-year tenure was, by most accounts, a disaster.  Gannett’s stock price declined to about $10 a share from a high of $75 the day after he took over; the number of employees at Gannett plummeted to 32,000 from about 52,000, resulting in a remarkable diminution in journalistic boots on the ground at the 82 newspapers the company owns.

Never a standout in journalism performance, the company strip-mined its newspapers in search of earnings, leaving many communities with far less original, serious reporting.

Given that legacy, it was about time Mr. Dubow was shown the door, right? Not in the current world we live in. Not only did Mr. Dubow retire under his own power because of health reasons, he got a mash note from Marjorie Magner, a member of Gannett’s board, who said without irony that “Craig championed our consumers and their ever-changing needs for news and information.”

But the board gave him far more than undeserved plaudits.  Mr. Dubow walked out the door with just under $37.1 million in retirement, health and disability benefits. That comes on top of a combined $16 million in salary and bonuses in the last two years.


And also this, by Peter Lewis, formerly of the Des Moines Register, New York Times, Time magazine and Stanford University journalism school.

Mr. Dubow … required many employees to take unpaid leaves of absence, and instituted pay freezes.  He referred to this as “increasing workplace efficiencies.” … …

Mr. Dubow managed to keep earnings high, according to analysts, by cutting costs (i.e. people) more aggressively than any other company in the media industry.  Gannett refers to this as “workplace restructuring.” … …

Gracia Martore, who replaces Dubow as CEO, said: “We will continue our relentless quest to provide trusted news and information and will actively support the people and businesses in the communities we serve.”

These people are lying.  The corporate goal is not to serve the consumer; it’s to maximize profits and pay packages for top executives.  Can anyone argue that Gannett newspapers and journalism are better today, and that news consumers are better served?

How did Mr. Dubow and Gannett serve the consumer?  They laid off journalists.  They cut the pay of those who remained, while demanding that they work longer hours.  They closed news bureaus.  They slashed newsroom budgets.  As revenue fell, and stock prices tanked, and product quality deteriorated, they rewarded themselves [with] huge pay raises and bonuses.

via Words & Ideas.


“Super-entity” has interlock on global economy

October 24, 2011

Mathematical analysis of corporate interlocks by Swiss scientists reveal a “super-entity” of 147 companies which potentially dominate the world economy and potentially threaten world economic stability.

A team of three scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology began with a data base of about 37 million companies whose stock is publicly traded, according to a report in New Scientist.  From this they selected 43,060 companies which own shares in other companies.  Within this group they found 1,318 that owned shares in two or more other companies; they accounted for 20 percent of global corporate revenues, and 60 percent of the revenues of blue chip and manufacturing companies.

At the heart of those companies was a “super-entity” of 147 companies whose shares were entirely owned by other members of the group.  Although they comprised fewer than 1 percent of the companies analyzed, they accounted for 40 percent of the wealth in the group.  About three-quarters of the companies are banks and financial firms.

The scientists said there is no evidence that this is the result of a conspiracy.  Rather it is the logical working out of an algorithm which allows for corporate ownership of other corporations.  But it could create problems for world economic stability.  Failure of one or more of the 147 companies could endanger the others, and the ripples would spread into the world economy.  And if the heads of the companies acted in concert, they would be a superpower.

So in addition to a “too big to fail” problem, we have a “too interlocked to fail” problem.

Click on Revealed: the capitalist network that runs the world for the full article in New Scientist.

Click on A tightly knit network of companies runs the world for more about the study.

Below is a list of the top 50 companies in the 147-company “super-entity.”


The new American militarism

October 24, 2011

The U.S. armed forces in the 21st century bestride the world.  There are U.S. bases on every continent; the Pentagon itself cannot state with accuracy how many bases there are.  The United States spends nearly as much on its armed forces as the rest of the world put together.  Spending on weapons system and weapons research is exempt from normal budget constraints.

But even so, the U.S. military is not large enough for its many missions.  It is necessary to issue stop-loss orders to retain troops whose enlistments have expired, and to make the National Guard part of the regular fighting force.

I recently read Andrew J. Bacevich’s  The New American Militarism: How America Is Seduced by War, an excellent book explaining how this came about.  The book was published in 2005, but unfortunately is still as true now as it was then.

Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and retired career Army officer who teaches international relations at Boston University.  He is a self-described conservative Catholic, whose first articles on this subject were written during the Clinton administration and published in National Review.  His son, also a career Army officer, was killed while serving in Iraq some time after this book was written.

The U.S. armed forces have greater prestige than at any previous time in American history.  No important politician in either party fails to praise the military.  Movies and television glamorize the military.  Pundits take the military virtues as a model for society as a whole.  Yet few people, especially among the political and economic elite, actually serve in the military.  The disconnect between the military and the citizenry is unhealthy in a democracy, Bacevich wrote.

He said that the welfare of the nation, and also of the military itself, requires that the mission of the U.S. military be scaled back to the Constitutional one of providing for the common defense, rather than imposing a new world order on unwilling people.  He said the size of the U.S. military should be scaled back to reasonable level—say, a budget no larger than the combined budgets of the next 10 greatest military powers.   He said Congress must claw back its authority to declare or refrain from declaring war.  The National Guard should normally serve on the home front and not abroad.

He made good proposals for bridging the gap that now exists between the professional military and the civilian citizenry.  Instead the armed forces should offer to give a free college education or pay the college debts of anyone who enlists for a specific time.  He said all military officers should be required to earn a degree from a civilian college, and then take one year of additional schooling at one of the service academies.   He does not advocate bringing back the draft unless there is a national emergency that requires it, but thinks these proposals would make the military more broadly representative of society.

He had good answers for every question except one—the need to project U.S. military power to assure U.S. access to the oil of the Persian Gulf.   I don’t have a good answer to that one either.


Nonviolent soldier of Islam

October 23, 2011

I think of Islam as a warrior religion.  My mental picture of Mohammed is a man on horseback, sword in hand.  So I was astonished to read A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, which tells the story Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a 20th century Muslim leader of nonviolent struggle.

Known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” Ghaffar Khan led the Pathans (Pushtuns), one of the most warlike people who ever lived, in nonviolent struggle against British rule and then for autonomy within Pakistan.

The Pathans are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the northwest border region of what is now Pakistan.  They have a reputation for being utterly fearless in battle and never allowing an insult or injury to go unavenged.  A nonviolent Pathan would have seemed as much a contradiction in terms in early 20th century India as a nonviolent Comanche or Apache in late 19th century North America.

Yet  Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Badshah was a title, like Mahatma) organized hundreds of thousands of Pathans into what was literally a nonviolent army.  His Khudai Khidmatgar had uniforms, military ranks, military drills and discipline, even a drum and bagpipe corps, but no weapons.  Weaponless, they endured beatings and imprisonment, and walked into machine gun fire in their struggle for freedom.

The Khudai Khidmatgar, a nonviolent army

Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 into a well-to-do Pathan family in the Northwest Frontier Province of British India.  A British missionary arranged scholarships for him to study in England, but his family influenced him to turn them down, lest he be estranged from traditional values.  Instead he enlisted in the Guides, an auxiliary force to the British army in India.  He found the British treated Indians with contempt, and he resigned.

He started a new career as a reformer, organizing village schools.  If the authorities had allowed him to do this, his exploits might have ended there.  But the powers that be, both British and native, felt that education of the common people was a threat to their power.  They had him repeatedly imprisoned and exiled.  After a number of years he made contact with the Indian National Congress, and met Gandhi.  He learned Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance, and put them into practice himself.  He said, however, that he drew his inspiration for nonviolent struggle from the Koran, particularly the early prophecies drawn from the period when Mohammed and his early followers persisted under persecution.

One of the criticisms sometimes made of Gandhi is that nonviolent struggle would not avail against a really ruthless enemy, such as Hitler’s Nazis or Stalin’s Communists.  British repression fell short of what the Nazis and Communists did, but it was brutal enough.  The British destroyed whole villages for disobedience, they brutally beat anyone in their path, they imprisoned Ghaffar Khan and others without charging them with any crimes and they sometimes killed people indiscriminately.  And, like the Nazis and Communists, they feared any independent action by people they ruled.  Ghaffar Khan did not begin as a rebel against the British when he started his village schools.  The British made him a rebel when they put him in prison for trying to raise up his people.

I have read translations of the Koran, and, to me, its message is not a pacifistic one.  There are passages that could be quoted to justify military aggression and persecution, but, for me, the predominant message is to live in peace if you can, but be ready to fight unrelentingly if you have to.  I agree with this message, but it is not a pacifist one.

But then, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad-Gita, whose conclusion is that the duty of Ajuna the charioteer as a warrior is to fight and obey orders, even in what he considers an unjust war.  And, for that matter, Christians and Jews are highly selective in their reading of the Mosaic Code.  I don’t say that Ghaffar Khan or Gandhi misinterpreted their sacred scriptures, only that how you interpret scripture depends on the values you bring to it as well as what the words say.

Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan both made a distinction between the “nonviolence of weakness” and the “nonviolence of strength.”  They said there is no value in being nonviolent if you are afraid to fight.  In fact, it is better to fight violently than to submit to wrong.  That is how Gandhi justified urging Indians to enlist in the British army during the Boer War and First World War.  He believed that you have to first be capable of fighting in order to meaningfully renounce violence.

Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar show that the distance between brave, disciplined warriors and brave disciplined pacifists is small compared to the difference between both types of person and the average risk-averse, comfort-seeking person such as myself.


Why so few viral e-mails from liberals?

October 22, 2011

I frequently receive e-mails of stuff like this.

I almost never receive e-mails of stuff like this.

Why is that?

Lemony Snicket on Occupy Wall Street

October 22, 2011

Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket

People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.



The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

October 20, 2011

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are grass-roots American movements that arose out of concern about economic decline and anger at government bailouts of the Wall Street banks.

Since their concerns overlap, can they got together?  Probably not.

  • The Tea Partiers’ anger and resentment are directed at people below them on the socioeconomic scale.  Occupy Wall Streeters’ anger and resentment are directed at people above them on the socioeconomic scale.
  • Tea Partiers think the root of our problems are in Washington.  Occupy Wall Streeters thinks the root of our problems are on Wall Street.
  • The Tea Partiers’ theme is that the government does not follow the Constitution as they understand it.  The Occupy Wall Street theme is economic injustice.
  • Some Tea Partiers dress up in Revolutionary War costume.  Some Occupy Wall Streeters wear masks inspired by the movie V for Vendetta, which is about a future revolution.
  • The Tea Partiers are proud of American exceptionalism.  The Occupy Wall Streeters join hands with protest movements around the globe.
  • The average Tea Party member is middle-aged.  The average Occupy Wall Street member is young.
  • Tea Partiers are almost all white (which is NOT to say they are racist).  Occupy Wall Street is a rainbow coalition.
  • The Tea Party is a faction of the Republican Party.  Occupy Wall Streeters include more Democrats than Republicans, but the majority are independents, who strongly oppose both major political parties.
  • The Tea Party has an effective strategy, which is to run support candidates reflecting their views in Republican primary elections.  The Occupy Wall Street movement as yet has no strategy, except to hold rallies and bring together like-minded people.

When the Tea Party first emerged, many Americans looked on it favorably, but recent public opinion polls indicate that only 23 percent of Americans look on it favorably now.  In contrast, some 50 percent of Americans look favorably on the Occupy Wall Street movement at present.  It will be interesting to see how many look favorably on it a year from now.

But I think the majority of Americans are justifiably angry, and they will turn to leaders who understand and express their anger—if not the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, then someone else.

 For the past few decades, economic conditions have worsened for a majority of Americans, while income and wealth have been redistributed upward to the richest 1 percent (and within that group, the richest 1/10 of 1 percent).  We Americans historically have looked upon a continually rising material standard of living as our birthright.  There is bound to be a revolt, sooner or later.  The only questions are who will lead it and what form it will take.

Click on An open letter and warning from a former Tea Party movement adherent to the Occupy Wall Street movement for thoughts of a disillusioned Tea Party supporter.

Click on Why You Shouldn’t Compare Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party for a Time magazine article.

Click on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party: Do they agree on anything? for an article by Jacob Weisberg in Slate.

Click on Occupy Wall Street the Left’s Tea Party? Maybe, but… for an article by Robert Reich in the Christian Science Monitor.


Occupy Wall Street: democracy in action

October 19, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement, like the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, shows democracy in action.  Huge numbers of people who didn’t know each other came together, organized living arrangements and took action in a disciplined, non-violent manner.  It is a great contrast to the dysfunctional government in Washington, whose operations are unsatisfactory to almost everyone, including its own members.

As an example, take the move by Mayor Bloomberg to oust the Occupy Wall Street movement from its base with the excuse that it was necessary to “clean the park.” Occupy Wall Street had done already organized its own efficient cleanup, and created an efficient public relations system to make the world aware that it had done so.  It then prepared to resist the ouster, but in a disciplined, non-violent manner.  At the last moment, Mayor Bloomberg backed down.

If Occupy Wall Street participants had not been so well-organized, Mayor Bloomberg’s excuse would have sounded plausible.  If Occupy Wall Street participants had not been so well-disciplined, the threat of police action would have resulted in either retreat or violence.

The successful functioning of the Occupy Wall Street movement shows that whatever the problems of American government, they are not a result of the inability of the mass of the people to govern themselves.  People in small groups can govern themselves very well.

Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly system, as described in the video, is a good way to arrive at an inclusive consensus decision among people of good will with a common purpose.  Without the good will and common purpose, the General Assembly structure would be of no avail.  Occupy Wall Street would be as vulnerable to the influence of money and special interests, and to an obstructionist minority, as is the United States Senate.

Click on  Quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies for ideas about the consensus decision-making process from the Puerta del Sol Protest Camp in Madrid.

Click on Intellectual Roots of Wall Street Protest for a report on the theoretical background of the General Assembly decision-making process.

How corporations are being milked

October 18, 2011

This chart tells a shocking story.  It says that stockholders of American corporations are taking out more in dividends and stock buybacks than the corporations are earning in profits.  They are eating the seed corn.  They are taking for themselves the funds the corporations need to reinvest in new products, new equipment and research.

The blue line is corporate profits.  The dotted red line in dividends to stockholders.  The solid red line is the total of dividends to stockholders plus corporate purchases of their own stock.  In some years, the solid red line is below the dotted red line; those are years in which the amount corporations took in more by selling new stock than they paid out by buying back their existing stock.

Somebody who starts a company that produces something of value deserve a rich reward for their risk and effort.  The investors who enable somebody to start a successful company deserve a rich reward for their risk.  People who keep a company going deserve a reward for their effort.  But the passive stockholders who come after contribute very little.  They are not the equivalent of venture capitalists.  Their only role is to create an aftermarket into which the initial investors can cash out.

I have nothing against stockholders.  I put my own savings into Vanguard and T. Rowe Price mutual funds.  I would like to earn a return on my savings, but that does not entitle me to go to the front of the line, ahead of the workers, managers, suppliers and others who actually create value in the companies in the mutual funds.

On many levels, the United States is pulling back from investing in the future except for future war.  This is not sustainable.

Click on Disgorge the Cash! for more about this.

What I’d do about Wall Street

October 17, 2011

The original title of this post was “What I’d do about the banks”.

What to do about the “too big to fail” banks is obvious.  There are many good ideas in circulation (none of them original with me).  The only problem is accomplishing anything through the current dysfunctional U.S. political system.

The most obvious and important thing to do is to break up the “too big to fail” banks.  As even Alan Greenspan has said, if a bank is “too big to fail,” it is too big to exist.  Since the banking crisis, the biggest banks have become bigger than ever, and have resumed the practices that caused them to fail in the first place.  As some point, they will become too big to save.

Click to enlarge

Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, and co-author James Kwak proposed in their 2010 book, 13 Bankers: the Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown,  that any bank be broken up if its assets are more than 4 percent of the current U.S. Gross Domestic Product or if the bank itself is more than 2 percent of GDP.   The exact percentage is unimportant.  What is important is that it be enacted into law, and not left to the discretion of regulators.  We learned from the 2008 crisis that regulators can’t be trusted to act in the public interest.

Their size limits would have applied to just six banks – Bank of America (16% of GDP), JP Morgan Chase (14%), Citigroup (13%), Wells Fargo (9%), Goldman Sachs (6%) and Morgan Stanley (5%).  Breaking up the banks would not affect their profitability.  When Standard Oil was broken up, its component parts – Exxon, Mobil, Sohio, Standard of California – did just fine.

If the banks threaten to pull up stakes and relocate to some financial haven such as the Cayman Islands, the answer would be: Let the Cayman Islands bail you out when you get into trouble.

The federal government should also:

  • Set up an orderly procedure for reorganizing bankrupt banks, as was done with savings and loan associations during the S&L crisis.  During the S&L reorganizations, the failed management was fired, the depositors were held harmless, the failed investments were liquidated and the good assets were sold to soundly-managed S&Ls.  The solvent S&Ls got bargains, but that’s okay.  They were being rewarded for good management.
  • Prosecute financial fraud.
  • Give regulatory agencies, including the new Consumer Financial Protection Board, the resources to do their jobs, and head them by people not beholden to the financial industry.
  • Reenact the Glass-Steagall Act, which separates commercial and investment banking.
  • Impose a stock transaction tax of some small amount, say 1/10th of 1 percent.  Individual traders and computerized trading programs destabilize the market by trading huge amounts of stocks and commodities several times a day.  A small transaction tax would not be noticed by regular investors, but would slow down speculative trading.

As an individual, you can shift your money to a non-profit credit union or savings and loan association if you have money in one of the “too big to fail” banks, or if you think your bank is abusing you.  I do not say all for-profit banks are bad.  Many of them perform their function, which is to provide a safe haven for savings, loans for businesses and credit for consumers.  But so long as the “too big to fail” banks are saved from the consequences of reckless and exploitative actions, the prudent and ethical bankers will be crowded out.


Is the Lord’s Resistance Army our business?

October 16, 2011

Many U.S. interventions against evil tyrants during the past 30 years have turned out badly.   The U.S. way of war involves massive use of air power, which inevitably creates casualties among innocent civilians, and the rulers put in power by these interventions have often been as dubious as the rulers that were overthrown.

I would like to see the United States adopt the “humble” foreign policy advocated (but not carried out) by George W. Bush in the 2000 election campaign—a policy based on the realization that the United States does not have the standing or the power to dictate to the rest of the world, and that the mission of the U.S. armed forces should be to defend their country, not to dominate the world.

In spite of this, I can’t object to President Obama’s decision to send 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to advise on how to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They are not being sent to overthrow a regime.  They are being sent to support legitimate governments against a rebel terrorist organization guilty of mass killing, mutilation, and rape, and the kidnapping and brainwashing of young children into being soldiers and sex slaves.

Daba Emmanuel, a Ugandan villager forcibly recruited into the LRA in 2008, escaped to tell journalist Graeme Wood how the LRA entered a village, chose the children they wanted as slaves and locked everybody else into a church, was set on fire.  Those who tried to escape were hacked to pieces with machetes.

Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.   Congress in 2009 enacted a law authorizing aid to Uganda to suppress the LRA.   In passing the law, Congress cited studies that say the LRA over two decades has abducted 60,000 children and displaced 2 million villagers.

Now it is possible that intervention against the LRA will turn out to be a mistake.  Maybe 100 U.S. troops can’t really help in a place where they don’t know the terrain and don’t speak the language.  Maybe 15 years from now the U.S. will be bogged down in a quagmire war in central Africa, and the real reason for the intervention will have turned out to be central Africa’s rare earth minerals, which are vital to military and civilian electronics.   But I don’t think so.  Given what we know, this intervention is justified.


Richard Feynman on truth and beauty

October 16, 2011

The late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman says in this video something I’ve always believed to be true—that the more you learn about something, the more wonderful it seems.

The other two parts of the three-part series are below.


Paralyzed man operates robot arm with his mind

October 15, 2011

When I see things like this, I feel as if I’m living in a science fiction novel.  I feel fortunate to live in an age of such rapid medical progress.

I notice that this invention, like many others, is one that was made possible by we, the taxpayers, and not by a for-profit organization, which could never justify the investment to shareholders.

A grass-roots supporter of Wall Street

October 14, 2011

This picture is taken from a tumblr gallery entitled We Are the 53 Percent, which is a response to the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr gallery created by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The “53 percent” are angry not at the wealthiest 1 percent, but at the 47 percent who are too poor to pay income taxes.  Many of the people who want to keep taxes low on capital gains and upper bracket income want to extend the income tax downward.  When we talk about taxes, we somehow never talk about sales taxes, which fall most heavily on poor people, or payroll taxes, which fall most heavily on working people.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy in the picture falls within the 47 percent, based on the facts on his sign.  Most people don’t know how much they pay in income taxes, only their take-home pay or what they send to the IRS at the end of the year.  That is why it is politically safe to attack 47 percent of the poplation.

I have an accountant friend with a large low-income clientele who says that many of his clients don’t realize they are getting an earned income tax credit; they know there are tax deductions from their paychecks and they think they are getting a tax refund.

This guy is saying that he has things tough, and he puts up with it, so everybody else should.  He gets self-esteem from being willing to accept every burden placed on him, whether there is a good reason for it or not.  I imagine it would be hard for him to change, because that would mean admitting he was wrong all these years.

As a Marine, he subordinated himself unquestioningly to authority, and he embraced hardship and sacrifice.  In doing so, he served a greater good, the defense of his country.  What good does he think is served by his current hardship and sacrifice?  Does he think it unpatriotic to attack Wall Street bankers?  They are not going to give up a nickel of their bonuses for his sake.   He is attacking people who are on his side.

Click on We Are the 53 Percent for more pictures of people who oppose the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Click on We Are the 99 Percent for pictures of supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Click on “We Are the 99 Percent” Creators Revealed for an article on Mother Jones about the creators of this tumblr web site.

Click on Protesters Against Wall Street for an excellent New York Times editorial.  [added 10/15/11]

As of about 4 p.m. today, I counted 2440 pictures on the We Are the 99 Percent web site and 410 on the We Are the 53 Percent web site.  I was surprised there are so many of the latter. [added 10/26/11]

Let them eat webcams

October 14, 2011

It seems to me that when things get worse for a majority of the population for decades, and when the nation’s political leaders do nothing about it, an explosion such as Occupy Wall Street is bound to result.  But a lawyer named Doug Mataconis, who contributes to the Outside the Beltway web log, sees things differently.

… What strikes me more than anything else is that a lot of these people are frustrated 20-somethings who have gotten out of college and found that the road to the good life isn’t quite as smooth as they thought it would be.  Of course, things are more difficult today than they were ten years ago but that doesn’t mean they were easy back then.  Establishing yourself in life is always a challenge, especially if you run up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt without really thinking about how you’re going to pay it off.

Doug Mataconis

What comes across to me the most, though, is a sense of entitlement from some people and they idea that the situation they’re in clearly can’t be their fault so it must be the blame of someone else.  There’s an attitude about the protests that there is something morally wrong about the fact that not everyone is suffering equally in the current economy as well.

So when they look up and see that some people have managed to succeed during these rough economic times, that sense of entitlement becomes intermingled with a sense of envy and the belief that the only way these other people could have succeeded is by cheating.  As a result these protesters blame their situation on someone else, blare out largely incoherent slogans, and engage in a protest that has no discernible purpose.

I was surprised to see Doug Mataconis’ picture because, from his comments, I would have guessed he was my age (74).  In my era, and in the Baby Boomer era which followed, many young people had to struggle to get through college, and struggle for some years thereafter, but they had a reasonable expectation that the struggle would pay off.  What has provoked the Occupy Wall Street revolt, in my opinion, is not that things are tough, but that there is no reason to hope things will get better.

People of many age groups have joined the protests, but let’s focus on the recent college grads.   Going to college is no longer a privilege.  Young people today are told that they need a college degree to have a shot at a decent living.  College tuition is going sky-high, and the only way for most non-wealthy people is to take out a college loan.  A college loan cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.  So if you graduate from college and don’t get a high-paying job right away, you’re in jeopardy of being in debt for the rest of you life.  Blaming the young college graduates for this is like blaming sharecroppers of a century ago for owing money to the company store.

Click to view

The Wall Street financial firms have not “managed to succeed” by creating goods and services of value.  None of the Wall Street CEOs is a Steve Jobs.  Their success is based on getting people into debt, putting other people’s money into highly speculative investments and getting bailouts from the taxpayers and the Federal Reserve when things go sour.  The bailout means they will continue their abusive practices, and crowd out the ethical banks, credit unions, and savings and loans, at least until the next crash.

It is true that all the Occupy Wall Street protesters have done so far is to express their anger at injustice.  Only 24 percent of young adults voted in the 2010 elections.  But who was there to vote for?  I imagine many protesters voted for Barack Obama in 2008, only to see a continuation of bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich and attacks on the social safety net.   Only a few politicians of either party dissent from this consensus, and none of them are in decision-making positions.

Other critics say it is the protesters’ obligation to produce a detailed program to make things better.  In other words, it is their responsibility to do what Barack Obama, John Boehner and other Democratic and Republican leaders have failed to do.  Actually, there are many good ideas in circulation, which have been dismissed until now because they supposedly are politically unrealistic.  I can’t know how things will turn out, I hope Occupy Wall Street and movements like it change the balance of what is considered realistic and what isn’t.

Click on #Occupy Wall Street: A Protest, or a Temper Tantrum for Doug Mataconis’s full post.

Click on Bad Education for an account of how higher education is turning into a financial trap.

Click on Protesters Against Wall Street for an excellent New York Times editorial. [added 10/15/11]