Archive for May, 2013

Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?

May 31, 2013


I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel set in an anarchist utopia on the fictional planet of Anarres, which has no government, corporations, private property, money, buying and selling, police, criminal law or prisons.

I have questions about whether such a society is feasible, but the more interesting and important question for me is whether I would want to live in such a society.  I was undecided when I reviewed the book in an earlier post.

anarres1The moral atmosphere of Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres is like the church and volunteer groups to which I belong.  Everybody picks the job they like the best or feel best suited for, the work nobody wants to do is divided up, most people do their share and a vital few do much more than their share, without any reward except respect.  The work gets done, maybe not in the most efficient way, but without anybody being bossed around or made miserable and frustrated.

This is highly appealing.  I have been retired for nearly 15 years, and spent a fair amount of time in retirement doing church work, volunteer work and helping people out.  What I do has no monetary value, but I think what I do has some usefulness to society.  I expect to continue as long as I can.

But I would hate to go back to doing paid work, even though I have been much luckier in my work life than most people.   I’ve been able to do work that I wanted to do, and get paid for it.  As a newspaper reporter, I had much greater freedom than most wage earners to act on my own initiative and use my own judgment, although this diminished in the last few years before I retired.   If I had a guaranteed income and were young, I think I would work as a journalist without pay, and I think I would do as good a job as if I were dependent on an employer for my income.

leguin-the-dispossessedThe other aspect of life on Anarres, no private property and no laws, has less appeal for me.  I like owning my own house, free and clear, from which nobody has the power to turn me out.  I like thinking that I am free to speak and act as I wish, so long as I stay within the bounds of statutory law.   If my sense of security is an illusion, it is an illusion to which I cling.

If there is no private property and no Bill of Rights, then the freedom and security of the individual depends on public opinion.  I do not want my well-being and freedom to depend on public opinion.  As Adlai Stevenson once said, “A free society is a society in which it is safe to be unpopular.”  On Anarres,  I would be an “individualist” and a “propertarian,” both unpopular things to be.   On the other hand it is not exactly safe to be unpopular in the contemporary USA.

Now it is true that I am highly fortunate, even by American standards, and this shapes my judgment.  My new anarchist acquaintances point out that my thinking reflects the assumptions of the capitalist society in which I was born and grew up.  This is true.  The value of a book like The Dispossessed is that it helped me to re-examine my assumptions and think of new possibilities.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia for my original post.

Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

Click on Planets of the Hainish Cycle for a Wikipedia guide to Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe.

Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for an admirer’s thoughts.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.

perspective (more…)

Links for weekend browsing 5/31/13

May 31, 2013

Here are links to articles I found interesting, and you might find interesting, too.

Our American Pravda by Ron Unz.

The publisher of the American Conservative writes that many important news stories are ignored by the major U.S. newspapers and broadcasters, including the mystery of the 2001 anthrax attacks, evidence that American POWs were left behind in Vietnam and charges by an FBI whistleblower of a high-level espionage ring.  Ron Unz says you need to use the Internet to find the real news.

Postal service is on its last legs, with little help in sight in the Los Angeles Times.

OC&LpostofficeAs a government corporation, the U.S. Postal Service has the worst of both worlds—a requirement to make a profit, but no freedom of action to do the things necessary to make a profit.  Even so, the USPS might be able to survive if not for the requirement that it fund retirement benefits 50 years in advance—far longer than the USPS is likely to be in existence, unless things change.

At Universities, Too, the Rich Grow Richer by Lawrence Wittner.

Graham Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University, received $2.9 million in salary for the 2011-2012 academic year, the year he was forced to resign in disgrace over the Penn State pedophile scandal.   He is an example of how state universities reflect the U.S. trend to huge compensation packages for top executives, wage stagnation for middle-level workers and a growing number of low-paid temporary workers (adjuncts) at the bottom.

Why is the FBI helping a monstrous dictator? by Ted Rall.

A cartoonist and syndicated columnist asks why the FBI has arrested an opponent of Uzbekistan’s corrupt and hated dictator, Islam Karimov, who has massacred his own people and literally boiled opponents alive.  Karimov was so odious that the Bush administration severed relations, but the Obama administration restored the connection, because of Uzbekistan’s strategic location and Karimov’s help in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

The election cycle

May 30, 2013

Can't Act

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons like this.

Economic and criminal justice in Bangladesh

May 30, 2013

Accountability - in BangladeshIn a just world, business owners and executives would face criminal charges for their business-related violations of law, just like anybody else.

The indictment of Mohammed Sohel Rana, owner of Rana Plaza, the garment factory where more than 1,100 people were killed last month when the roof collapsed, is a step in the right direction.   Based on what I know, he deserves to be charged with negligent homicide.  He did not commit premeditated murder, but, in demanding workers go to work in a building whose walls were seen to be cracking, he evidently acted with reckless disregard of human life.

Sohel Rana is not a member of the global elite nor, evidently, the economic elite of his own nation, and he is an individual owner, without the option of hiding behind corporate person-hood.  So the significance of his indictment is limited, but it is still a good step forward.

Garment companies who outsource production to Third World countries such as Bangladesh have signed a pledge to set safety standards for their subcontractors.  Wal-mart (big surprise) and The Gap are major holdouts.

It is good to have laws and regulations protecting worker safety, but laws are not self-enforcing and tend to be ignored when they conflict with strong economic incentives in a competitive market.

The best thing is to have strong labor unions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, so that a worker is in a position refuse to enter a building on the verge of collapse and not risk being blacklisted for employment for the rest of his or her life.


President Obama is lucky in his enemies

May 30, 2013

President Obama is fortunate in his right-wing enemies.   They help him more than they hurt him.  When they attack him for minor and imaginary misdeeds, as they almost always do, they divert attention from the worse things of which he really is guilty.

Enemies who make Obama friendsFor example, I can’t see what is so terrible about Internal Revenue Service auditors looking extra carefully at Tea Party groups claiming tax-exempt status on the grounds that they are non-political educational organizations.  It seems to me that this is an obvious thing to look at closely.  As I understand it, the IRS didn’t actually challenge the tax exempt status of any Tea Party affiliate, just put them to the inconvenience of filling out extra paperwork.   Maybe the IRS inquiry was justified, maybe not, but I don’t see it as important.  The result of the controversy will be that IRS agents from now on will think long and hard before questioning a tax-exempt application from any right-wing organization.

The government’s reading of Associated Press and Fox News e-mails without warrants is a more serious issue, but it is a well-known fact that the U.S. government has developed a universal electronic surveillance system that operates outside the Fourth Amendment.  Why would they be except?  The whole affairs reminds me of Senator Joe McCarthy’s investigation of the U.S. Army in 1954 (which I am old enough to remember).  McCarthy could get away with smearing the reputations and ruining lives of individuals, but when his attack on a key part of the U.S. power structure proved to be his downfall.   My first thought was that President Obama overreached himself in a similar manner, but my sober second thought is that the Washington press corps is not a key part of the U.S. power structure, they only think they are.

communicatorThe Benghazi attack, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, is a legitimate issue.  It is reasonable to inquire whether better security could have been provided and whether the State Department intentionally presented misleading information.  But to me, these questions are much less important than the question of why the sdministration sponsored the overthrow of the Libyan government in the first place.  Muammar Qadaffi, the rule of Libya, renounced terrorism and efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and the overthrow tells other dictators there is nothing to be gained by cooperating with the United States.

The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party says President Obama is a socialist who wants to redistribute income to the lower classes and call off the war on terror.   The truth is that the President is a corporatist who has bailed out Wall Street, offered to cut Social Security, done nothing for black people as such while proposing to continue the war on terror indefinitely.   But it is hard to use these facts to point out that the Tea Partiers are wrong, without making Obama’s policies seem like good things rather than bad things.

The biggest problem in making the true case against Obama is the false case against Obama.


Click on How Arrested Development Explains the Obama Presidency for Conor Friedersdorf’s complaint that the U.S. public’s choice is between President Obama, who is committed to a state of war lasting for the indefinite future, and opponents such as Rep. Peter King, who complains that Obama says the war will someday have to end.

Click on Drones for “Regime Protection” for Philip Girardi’s article in The American Conservative about how the Obama administration plans to keep the Maliki and Karzai regimes in power after the troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan by the use of flying killer drones against their enemies.

Click on Obama’s terrorism speech: seeing what you want to see for Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of the difference between President Obama’s rhetoric and his actions.

Click on Media Targeted By Obama, Discovers Noone Cares Except the Mediafor more about straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

Malanowski’s Laws of Politics

May 29, 2013

Malanowski’s First Law of Politics is that the rich and powerful will always act in their own self interest.

Malanowski’s Second Law is that the rich and powerful will then get the rest of us to act in their interest as well, usually by making us believe that we hold this interest in common.

Malanowski’s Third Law is that when the rest of us figure out ways to act in our own self-interests, the rich and powerful are likely to outlaw whatever we’ve come up with.

I found Malanowki’s Laws on Apple: Living the Lie, a post on Jamie Malanowki’s official web log.

The true and only fairness doctrine

May 29, 2013


What needs to be redistributed?

May 28, 2013

Norman-Rockwell-Freedom-of-Speech-1943The people in the upper 1 percent income bracket are getting richer, and most of the rest are falling behind or barely keeping even.  But I don’t think wealth or income as such need to be redistributed.  What this country needs is a redistribution of political and economic power.

I would like to see a world in which labor unions, producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives are equal in power and status to business corporations, and labor unions, consumer and environmental associations and community organizations are equal in power to business assocaitions.

Then it would be possible to deal with issues of corporate governance, monopoly power, labor relations, election laws, government transparency, conflicts of interest and all the other systemic means by which a tiny elite can milk the system for their own benefit.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. supposedly said, there can be no freedom of contract without equality of bargaining power.  If power is widely distributed, the distribution of wealth and income will take care of itself.

I link. You decide.

May 28, 2013

Charts That Will Restore Your Faith in HumanityCharts from Business Insider.

Dear America: You Should Be Mad As Hell About ThisCharts from Business Insider.

What I take away from these two sets of charts is that the world has made a lot of progress in the past century, but the USA has regressed in many ways in the past 20 or so years.   You’ll notice that many of the graphs in the top set of charts end before they reach the year 2000.   What I get from these two sets of charts is that change is necessary, but progress is possible.

George Tyger’s War Zone Faith

May 27, 2013

The Rev. George Tyger was my minister at First Universalist Church here in Rochester, NY, before he enlisted as a U.S. Army chaplain.  He has written War Zone Faith, a book of reflections based on his two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

WarZoneFaithWar Zone Faith is not a book that glorifies war and killing, but neither is it a book that depicts American troops as victims.  It is about courage, comradeship and loss.  Tyger depicts combat as an extreme form of the human condition, of having to do your best under circumstances not of your choosing.

Unlike him, I have come to think that U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was a terrible mistake, but like him, I have a high regard for people who serve in the U.S. military.   There are those who enlist in the military out of economic necessity, but there are those, some overlapping with the first group, who want to do something for the good of their country.   There are military families, who generation after generation.

And if willingness to serve is used for unworthy purposes, that is not the fault of those who serve.  They do not send themselves into war zones overseas.   They are sent by the President and Congress, who cannot act without the consent of we, the people.  If our policy is a mistake, the responsibility lies with the citizenry, not the troops.

We Unitarian Universalists like to say that we respect human diversity, but the U.S. military has greater diversity than any other American institution I can think of.  American troops are of all races, all ethnicities, all religions, all social and economic classes, all kinds of family backgrounds.

Rev. George Tyger

Rev. George Tyger

In recent years United States military chaplains have come to be disproportionately from fundamentalist Protestant backgrounds.  Andrew Bachevich, in The New American Militarism, said this dates from the 1970s when many of the mainstream American denominations turned away from the U.S. military because of their opposition to intervention in Vietnam.   The religious conservatives were the main ones that still honored the military.  At the same time, Bachevich noted, the strict, fundamentalist type of Christianity was well-suited to counteract the drug abuse and all the other military discipline problems of that era.

At the same time, conservative Christianity has certain limitations.  Chaplains are supposed to represent their own faiths, but serve everyone.  But if a chaplain thinks that someone of my religious belief is going to hell, I don’t see how I can confide in that chaplain.  That is why a chaplain of the eclectic Unitarian Universalist faith, which looks for the good in all religions, might be able to serve men and women of any and all religions.

I originally was in favor of the invasion of Afghanistan.  I thought the United States was justified in invading a nation whose government harbored the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.   And I thought the result of the invasion would be to liberate Afghanistan from the rule of cruel religious fanatics.   George Tyger still thinks that, and I don’t, but I thinks his choice is an honorable one.  George Tyger, thank you for your service.

Click on UU minister joins Army as a chaplain for a 2008 article in UU World about George Tyger’s enlistment.

Click on Meaning in the Midst of War for an excerpt from Tyger’s book.

Click on Things That Go Boom in the Night for Tyger’s reflections on returning home from Afghanistan.

Memorial Day music: Last Post, Taps, Il Silenzio

May 27, 2013

Melissa Venema was 13 years old when she performed this trumpet solo in 2008 at Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 2008.  It sounds to my ear like Taps, a bugle call I heard every evening in 1957 at Fort Eustis, Va., when the flag was lowered at sundown.  Taps is a shorter version of Last Post, which is traditionally played at military funerals through the English-speaking world.

I wondered if the performance had any connection with the annual Memorial Day ceremony held by Dutch people at the American Military Cemetery in the Netherlands at Margarten, just six miles east of Maastricht.  This cemetery holds Americans who died fighting in World War Two to drive the German armies from the Netherlands.  It originally contained about 18,000 graves, but some American remains were shipped home, and the cemetery now has 8,301 plots.

Each dead American has been adopted by a Dutch family, who try to obtain photos and learn all they can about this particular person’s life, and who pay their respects at the graveside every year.   I was touched to learn this.   However, as it happens, Melissa Venema’s trumpet solo has nothing to do this this.  She was playing Il Silenzio, which is, I am told by Wikipedia, an Italian pop music selection composed by trumpeter Nini Rosso, based in an Italian cavalry bugle call.

No matter.  She played beautifully, and we can think our own thoughts as we listen.   We can remember the brave American soldiers, and also the brave Dutch Resistance fighters, who gave their lives to keep their countries free.


Beauty in the eye of a physicist

May 26, 2013

This video is based on a 1981 interview with the late Richard Feynman, responding to those who say that scientific knowledge destroys poetic appreciation of beauty.

Paraguayan kids create beauty out of trash

May 25, 2013

This video is a trailer for a documentary to be released next year about the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra, whose 20 or so members are Paraguayan teenagers who play instruments made from recycled garbage.

They live in Cateura, a suburb of Asuncio, where reclaiming and recycling material from a landfill is a major industry.  Favio Chavez, a musician, had a youth orchestra perform in Cateura, and local teenagers wanted to learn to play musical instruments themselves.  But nobody in Catuera could afford to buy musical instruments.  A violin would cost more than one of the shacks the people live in.

So Chavez teamed up with Nicolas Gomez, a garbage picker, and they figured out how to make musical instruments out of reclaimed trash.   A saxophone was made from tin water pipes, bottle caps and spoon and fork handles.  A cello was made from an old oil can, recycled wood and a tool used for tenderizing pasta.  Juan Manuel Chavez is show in the video playing part of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 on that cello.

Click on Their Instruments May Be Garbage, But Their Music Will Bring Tears to Your Eyes to read more in Mother Jones magazine.   It’s quite a story.

Hat tip to Obsidian Wings.

Social liberalism and economic inequality

May 25, 2013

Is there a connection between social liberalism and economic inequality?

As I see it, one link is a widespread meme that sees society as an arena of competition and social justice as a guarantee of fair rules and a level playing field.

inequalityIf you see society in this way, rather than as a means for people to co-operate for mutual benefit, then justice demands that you do your best to assure equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, physical handicap or anything else that isn’t under control of the individual.   But these meme does not give the wealthy any obligation toward the non-wealthy.  It would be like demanding that the winner of a high-stakes poker game return some of his winnings to the loser.

Of source there is no logical connection between social liberalism and economic inequality.   In fact, it would be much easier to assure equal opportunity in a full-employment, high-wage economy.

Click on More diversity, less equality: why the tradeoff? for my earlier post on this topic.

Click on Hard equality for comments about that post on the Unqualified Offerings web log.  It’s humbling to realize that a link to my post on somebody else’s web log gets comments and the original post did not.

To be clear, I think a market economy is great if it is understood as a way for people to cooperate and exchange goods and services for their mutual benefit without getting permission from Big Brother.  And I think meritocracy is great if merit is understood as how much you contribute to the common good.

The country formerly known as Burma

May 25, 2013

An e-mail friend of mine who lives in Thailand sent me a link to an editorial in the Bangkok Post about a visit by President Thein Sein of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to President Obama in the White House.  That country has been ruled by a military dictatorship and is slowly transitioning back to an elected government.

map_of_myanmarAccording to the editorial, Obama and Thein Sein discussed American business investment in the former Burma, but ignored the country’s role as a center of heroin and methamphetamine trafficking.   It is interesting how the U.S. government wages low-intensity war against the Mexican and Colombian cocaine cartels, but cares little about the opium and heroin cartels of south and southeast Asia.

The editorial writers regret that Obama did not bring up the persecution of a minority group called the Rohingya, which I’d never heard of.   A little Google research told me that they are a Muslim ethnic group terrorized by the Buddhist majority, and that many are refugees in neighboring countries.  I always thought of Buddhism as a contemplative, tolerant religion. It goes to show how misleading stereotypes can bethat Buddhists, like other people, do not necessarily follow the best teachings of their religion, and to show how little knowing the name of the religion to which someone pays lip service will tell you about that person’s behavior.

The two things I get from the editorial are an indication of the U.S. government’s priorities in foreign policy, and an indication of how some foreigners still look to Americans to champion human rights.

Click on Myanmar, US Waste a Chance to read the editorial.

Holiday weekend links roundup

May 25, 2013

Here are links to articles on military and foreign policy I found interesting, and you might find interesting, too.

Words of Peace and Acts of War David Bromwich examines the strange fact that President Barack Obama articulates as well as anyone why perpetual warfare, indiscriminate drone killings and Guantanamo Bay detention contradict American ideals and the rule of law, and yet he acts as if he somehow were helpless to stop doing it.

A Profound Lack of Self-Awareness.  “B Psycho” analyzes the contradictions in President Obama’s terrorism speech Thursday.

Military Quietly Grants Itself the Power to Police the Streets Without State or Local Consent.  Jed Morey of AlterNet says the U.S. military may have crossed a Rubicon.

Spycraft in Moscow .  Philip Giraldi makes the case in The American Conservative that Ryan Fogle, arrested in Moscow recently on espionage charges, really was a CIA agent, and speculates on why the Russian government chose to publicize the case.

Iran Hangs on in Quiet Desperation. Pepe Escobar of Asia Times explains how the clerics on Iran’s Guardian Council have rigged the results of the June 14 Presidential election by refusing all the serious opposition candidates permission to run.  I wouldn’t want to live under Iran’s government, but I don’t think the country’s governance would be improved by dropping bombs.

More diversity, less equality: why the tradeoff?

May 24, 2013

During the past 30 or 40 years ago, the United States has come closer than ever before to equal opportunity, not only for African-Americans and women, but also GLBT folks and the physically handicapped.

At the same time a huge gap has developed between a tiny elite, who gather a greater share of American wealth and income year by year, and the vast majority of Americans, who are either falling behind or struggling as hard as they can to keep even.

Samuel Goldman, writing in The American Conservative recently, said this is no paradox.  He wrote that the tradeoff between diversity and equality is a result of a tacit grand bargain between the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and corporate America.

inequality… The stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are far from “unrelated”.  Rather, social inclusion has been used to legitimize economic inequality by means of familiar arguments about meritocracy.   According to this view, it’s fine that the road from Harvard Yard to Wall Street is paved with gold, so long a few representatives of every religion, color, and sexual permutation manage to complete the journey.  Superficial diversity at the top thus provides an moral alibi for the gap between the one percent and the rest.

via The Spiritual Crisis of the Bourgeois Bohemians.

Rod Dreher, also writing in The American Conservative, put it this way.

economic_inequalityFrom a contemporary progressivist point of view, non-rich social conservatives who vote Republican do so out of false consciousness, or mindless bigotry.  But how many liberals would vote for a politician who proposed to stick it to the banks and the oligarchs, and who endorsed a broadly progressive economic agenda, but who openly opposed gay marriage and abortion, and endorsed religious piety?  (Basically, your pre-1970s Catholic Democrat).  Very few, I would imagine.

The culture war is in some ways class war by another name. Whenever you see some middle or upper class person gabbing on about the importance of diversity, you shouldn’t expect that they mean actual diversity — because then they would be eager to include, say, white working-class Republican Pentecostals — but rather diversity as what Goldman calls a “moral alibi,” which entails one’s ability to conceal one’s own real motivations from oneself.

via Culture (War) Is Everything.

I think there is a lot of truth in this, and it explains a lot.

It explains how Silicon Valley billionaires can avoid taxes, export jobs to some low-wage Third World country and shrug off the problems of middle-class and working-class Americans, and still be considered liberals and good friends of President Obama.

And it explains how President Obama can still be considered a liberal as he tries to undermine Social Security, attack teachers unions and negotiate trade treaties that lock in the corporate agenda.

When I worked for Gannett, CEO Al Neuharth ostentatiously promoted the advancement of African-Americans, women and gay people, which made him bullet-proof against criticism for offering sub-standard pay and benefits and crushing labor unions.

Our “diversity training” sessions always seemed to me to be part of a policy of divide-and-rule. I remember that at one session, a gay white man got up and said that gays, African-Americans and women in the newsroom should unite against the straight white men—not a view that would improve morale or teamwork.   He was not rebuked, and was later promoted.

The tipoff as to management’s aims was in the fact that they refused to agree to a clause in the union contract calling for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The company wanted GLBT people, as well as African-Americans and women, to look to management, not to fellow workers, for their rights.

Of course acceptance of diversity is a good thing, not a bad thing.  It is a good thing that Ursula Burns, a black woman, can become CEO of Xerox, but not everybody can be a CEO or wants to be one.   Some people are content with an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and what’s wrong with that?

Nor is there any logical reason why diversity and equality should be tradeoffs.  The U.S. labor union movement has long ceased to be a movement primarily of native-born white men.   Trade unions recognize that they can’t win unless they stand together, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or anything else.



As I see it, one link between social liberalism and economic inequality is a widespread meme that sees society as an arena of competition and social justice as a guarantee of fair rules and a level playing field.

If you see society in this way, rather than as a means for people to co-operate for mutual benefit, then justice demands that you do your best to assure equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, physical handicap or anything else that isn’t under control of the individual.   But these meme does not give the wealthy any obligation toward the non-wealthy.  It would be like demanding that the winner of a high-stakes poker game return some of his winnings to the loser.



The Keystone XL debate is not an equal contest

May 24, 2013

Double click to enlarge.

Tar sands crude oil (bitumen) is a corrosive mixture of sand, clay, water and crude oil which can be refined into useful petroleum products.  It is produced in the Canadian province of Alberta, but Canadian provinces to the east and west don’t want it piped through their territories because of fears of pipe ruptures and environmental damage.  Instead tar sands crude is piped southward through the Great Plains to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas.   There have been two pipeline ruptures already this year in the USA, in Michigan and in Arkansas

In order to be economically feasible, TransCanada, the major tar sands producer, wants to expand the pipelines crossing the USA and build supplemental pipelines.  Part of the project involves a new border crossing, which is subject to approval or disapproval by President Obama.  The President hasn’t made his decision yet, but the U.S. State Department issued a favorable report on the project.

Click on Keystone XL Pipeline | StateImpact Texas for background information.

Click on Keystone: What We Know for a report on the Keystone XL opposition by Bill McKibben.

Source of the infographic: United Republic.

Education and its discontents

May 24, 2013

My friend Bill Elwell e-mailed me this—

The fast food workers are told: “Get more education.”

The adjuncts are told: “What, you thought all that education would get you a job?”

Why lobbying is a highly profitable investment

May 24, 2013
Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Hat tip to occasional links & commentary.

CEO pay and stockholder return: the disconnect

May 24, 2013


I leave it to statisticians to tell me whether there is a relationship between the profitability of companies and CEO pay.  I just note that the CEO on this chart whose company was the most profitable, Jeff A. Stevens of Western Refining, got one of the smallest compensation packages, and the CEO with the biggest compensation package, Larry Ellison of Oracle, headed a company that lost money.

It is true, of course, that executive pay is related to the size of the company and other factors besides annual return on equity, so there may be other rankings in which these figures seem to make sense.  I’d be interested to know them.

Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Do we want open source manufacturing? of guns?

May 23, 2013

When the technology for downloading musical audio files was first introduced, many visionaries thought this would open up a whole new relationship between musicians and their audience.  No longer would musicians be dependent on record companies, broadcasters and other intermediaries to reach a mass audience.  They could do it themselves, though the Internet.

This didn’t happen, because of intellectual property law enforced through, among other things, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Now the new technology of 3-D printing promises to do the same thing for physical objects that an audio file did for music.  Download a blueprint for anything whatsoever, and a 3-D printer will someday be able to make a copy of it.  The technology is kind-of, sort-of, but not really like making a xerographic copy.   A Xerox printer binds the toner to a sheet of paper.  A 3-D printer binds tiny particles of plastic to each other.

The promise of 3-D printing is that industrial designers could sell their designs directly to customers to be produced in home 3-D printers, bypassing factories and distribution channels.  But once again, intellectual property law will get in the way.

Cody Wilson with flag from Texas War of Independence

Cody Wilson with flag from Texas War of Independence

The legal test case will be a U.S. government order to a 25-year-old Texas law student named Cody Wilson to cease distributing plans for printing a 3-D gun.   This is not, at least for now, as scary as it seems.  Printed plastic guns are likely to fail after a few rounds are fired.   Why bother with them when guns made of foundry-produced parts are readily available?

I can imagine an episode of CSI where someone commits a murder with a 3-D printed gun, and then grinds up the plastic and prints out something else.   And the CSI team figures out that a plastic lawn ornament was really the murder weapon because it has a signature trace of the gunpowder found in the bullet.  But I can’t imagine this actually happening.

For the U.S. government, as for Cody Wilson, what’s important is the principle of the thing.   They will go to court, and the decision will shape the future not just of gun rights, but of a whole new manufacturing technology.   I sympathize with what Wilson trying to do and I like his style, but I think there would be a better chance of getting a dispassionate ruling if the advocate of open source manufacturing were an MIT professor or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.


Click on Defense Distributed for Cody Wilson’s home page and WikiWep DevBlog for his web log.

Click on Juanjo Pina | Scoops de JP for a web log devoted to 3-D manufacturing technology.  [Added 5/27/13]

Click on 3D printed guns are going to create big legal precedents by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian, for a thoughtful view of the technical and legal issues.

Click on The 3-D Printed Future and Its Enemies by Peter Frase in Jacobin magazine, giving the case for open source manufacturing and against the use of intellectual property law to restrict it.

Click on The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class by Jaron Lanier for Salon, making the case against open source manufacturing and the whole Internet economy.

The high cost of politics

May 23, 2013


Hat tip for the infographic to United Republic.


Coming clean on drone killings?

May 23, 2013

Attorney-General Eric Holder has revealed the names of four American citizens killed by flying killer drones.  They are the pro-terrorist Muslim cleric Anwar al-Alwaki; Samir Khan, who happened to be nearby when al-Alwaki was killed; Abdulrahman al-Alwaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son who was killed a few days later; and Juda Kenan Mohammed, about which nothing else is known.

droneattackobamaAnwar al-Alwaki was killed on purpose, because of he reportedly worked with terrorist plotters.  Samir Khan, Abdulrahman al-Alwaki and Juda Kenan Mohammed were killed by accident—”collateral damage.”  I can’t really generalize from a few examples, but if only one out of four victims of Obama’s flying killer drones were actual targets, this does not speak well of the supposed precision of drone strikes.

I think more Americans would be concerned about this if the unintended victims had names such as John Smith, Patrick O’Riley or Karl Andersen.   We need to remember that what can be done to people with dark skins and Arabic names can be done to people with light skins and European names (not that the latter is worse than the former).

Holder’s memo says the Obama administration’s policy is only to assassinate American citizens if they are on foreign soil and if (1) they pose an “imminent threat of violent attack” against the United States, (2) capture is not feasible and (3) the attack is conducted in accordance with the law of war.   The law of war requires that (a) killing is required by military necessity, (b) civilians are not intentionally targeted, (c) collateral damage does not exceed the military value of the operation and (d) the type of weapons used do not inflict unnecessary harm.

He gives a bill of particulars against Anwar al-Alwaki which makes a strong case that al-Alwaki was an “enemy combatant” and deserved to be targeted under these criteria—although there are observers who dispute his facts, and al-Alwaki himself, laboring under the disadvantage of being dead, is not able to give his side of the story.

Read Holder’s letter as a lawyer would.  Note that his criteria refer only to the killing of American citizens abroad.  There is nothing in the letter to limit drone killings of foreigners abroad.  In particular, there is nothing to limit the “signature strikes” killings people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia based on suspicious patterns of behavior—what you might call “walking while Muslim.”

I was struck by the supercilious tone of the letter.   Holder appears to feel that the Obama administration really wasn’t obligated to reveal the names of the four dead Americans, and that it has gone above and beyond its duty of transparency to satisfy critics in the Senate.

Actually, this stance is politically shrewd.  Obama and Holder don’t absolutely refuse to disclose what the administration is doing, but they make it as difficult as possible to obtain the most minor bits of information.  With each disclosure, the temptation for Congress must be to declare victory for transparency and give up.

When I raise questions like this, friends point to earlier periods of American history, such as the Civil War, World War One and World War Two, when civil liberties were temporarily suspended with no permanent loss of liberty.  But all these conflicts came to an end in a short time, and the country was able to return to normal.   What is different about the “war on terror” is that, on the one hand, the existence of the country is not at risk, but, on the other hand, the war is planned to last for decades and perhaps indefinitely.


Holder Letter on Counterterrorism Strikes Against U.S. Citizensa copy of Eric Holder’s letter to Patrick J. Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Acknowledges Killing 4 Americans in Drone Strikes by Charlie Savage and Peter Baker in the New York Times.

The Audacity of Eric Holder’s Letter by Conor Friedersdorf.

Washington gets explicit: its ‘war on terror’ is permanent by Glenn Greenwald.

Why good people can’t find jobs

May 23, 2013

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds in its surveys that there are about 10 people looking for work for every three jobs that are open—more than twice the proportion of job-seekers before the recession.  Yet many employers say there is a labor shortage.  They say they have jobs that they can’t find people to fill.

Peter Cappelli, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Center for Human Resources, says that the problem is not unqualified job-seekers.  The problem is bad  hiring practices.

First, he says, when employers advertise for employees, they cast too wide a net.  They get a tidal wave of applications, more than anyone can possibly consider, and so they have to look for reasons to thin out the applications.

Some throw out all applications that use certain buzzwords, or omit certain buzzwords.   Some throw out all applications which indicate that the person is older than a certain cutoff point (even though this is illegal) or that are worded so as not to reveal the person’s age.   Many throw out all applications from people who don’t have the exact skills required, and many throw out all applications from people not currently employed.

Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

So if the only person you are willing to hire is someone already doing that exact same job for some other employer, and you don’t want to pay that person a premium wage to lure them away, then, yes, you are going to have trouble filling that post.   I’m exaggerating to make a point, but what I hear from my friends who are looking for work confirms what Cappelli says.  Many employers have arbitrary filtering systems that reject job applications from good people.

Another problem, as Cappelli sees it, is that employers don’t want to hire people they would have to train.  They don’t want to spend the money to train people because they’re not confident that the trainee will stay with them long enough for them to get their investment back.  In fact, the better trained someone is, the better chance the person has of getting a better job elsewhere.

Job-seekers these days spend their own money trying to acquire qualifications they think employers want, but often those qualifications are a mismatch.

According to the theory of how a free-market economy is supposed to work, this isn’t supposed to happen.  According to economic theory, if there is a shortage of workers to fill a certain type of job, then wages for that job will rise until supply equals demand.  The fact that this isn’t happening suggests that theory doesn’t always apply to the real world.

Part of the reason employers are so slow to fill job openings is that the reason they advertise for new workers is merely to appease their over-worked existing staffs.  As long as they are going through the motions, they can tell their exhausted existing workers that they are doing the best they can.

Cappelli has ideas for making things better, including the following:

  • Have employers work with community colleges and vocational high schools to provide training to qualify employees to do specific jobs.  Most American cities and counties want to attract industry and jobs.  This would be a better way to do it than offering tax abatements and other special privileges.
  • Promote from within.   An employer’s best workers are more likely to stay with a company if they have hope of a future within that company.  Taleo Corp., a “talent management” company, reported that, in recent years, two-thirds of all job openings, even in large companies, were filled by hiring from without.  A generation ago, all but 10 percent of openings were filled by promotion or transfer from within.

Cappelli also suggests giving new hires a learner’s wage while they receive on-the-job training.  This could be good, but it offers possibilities for abuse.   Unscrupulous employers could hire cycle after cycle of learners and never give them full pay.  In this age of widespread wage theft, this is a realistic concern.

Click on Why Companies Can’t Find the Employees They Need for an article by Cappelli in the Wall Street Journal.   In fairness to him, his tone is less strident than mine is.

Click on Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs—What You’re Up Against for a review of Cappelli’s book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs:  The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.  I haven’t read the book.