Archive for June, 2013

Reason and human nature

June 30, 2013

All human beings are rational beings.

All human beings are emotional and intuitive beings.

All human beings are moral beings.

robert-weber-the-dawn-of-reason-new-yorker-cartoonWhen someone says he is above reason, I believe that the person is either unaware of his thinking processes or has a hidden agenda.   A person completely without the ability to think rationally would be unable to function in the world.

When someone says he is unemotional, I believe that the person is either unaware of his feelings and desires or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without feelings or desires would have nothing with which to reason about.

When someone says he is morally neutral, I believe that the person either is unaware of the moral nature or his beliefs, or has a hidden agenda.  A person completely without morals would be a dangerous psychopath.

Experience is subjective.  Facts are real.

Everyone experiences life in a unique way which never can be fully communicated to others, although great artists come close.  In that sense, and that sense alone, we each live in our own separate reality.

At the same time, there is the reality of facts, whose existence is not dependent on our beliefs and which are the same for everyone.  Our knowledge of facts will always be partial, tentative and subject to correction, but it behooves us to understand them as best we can, because they will catch up with us if we don’t.

As someone once said, it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

I wrote this post as a generic response to my acquaintances who tell me that my thinking is superficial because of my belief in reason.   Of course I do not believe that there is a rational philosophical or scientific system that, once  you understand it, explains everything.  What I do believe in is the reality check.   If my ideas don’t make sense, or if my ideas are contrary to the facts,  I should stop believing in them.

Does this make sense to you?  What have I got wrong?  What have I left out?

600 sunrises over Mount Fuji

June 30, 2013

This space, “above-the-clouds,” exists far from the ground where we live our daily lives.  It is also a space between the earth and the universe.  Being there simply reminds me of the face that we live on the earth which is a planet within an infinite space of the universe.

Changing shapes with every second, the clouds look like a membrane of the earth.  When the sun rises behind a cloud-forming horizon, the world pained in only blue before suddenly and completely looking different.  I witnessed many times this magical transformation.

==Yu Yamauchi

For a total of 600 days—in periods of five months at a stretch over four years—photographer Yu Yamauchi lived in a small hut near the summit of Mount Fuji and photographed the dawn from the same angle.  His 600 photographs make up the video above.

Click on Yoake for some stills of his photographs.

The power and beauty of typography

June 29, 2013

Hat tip to Informed Comment.

Practical advice from a mallard

June 29, 2013

actualadvicemallard77

Hat tip to quickmeme.

Spy contractors moonlight for corporations

June 28, 2013

nsaAn estimated 70 percent of the National Security Administration’s budget goes to private contractors. Some of these contractors moonlight for large corporations, and use their expertise to discredit and subvert labor unions, consumer advocates and environmentalists.

The distinction between enemies of the United States, political opponents of the government and critics of big business would be hard to maintain in any case.   Outsourcing of national security and intelligence work makes it worse.

Click on Few Consequences When Cybersecurity Contractors Go Bad for an example of this. (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt).

Click on The World of American Informers and Agents Provocateurs for more examples.  [Added 6/29/13]

The wisest words I’ve read this week

June 28, 2013

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Cynicism is consent.

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How I would change things if I could

June 27, 2013

Here are ways to push back against the USA’s slippery slide into autocracy and oligarchy.

Rescind the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution.

Repeal the USA Patriot Act.

Repeal the Espionage Act.

Pass a Constitutional amendment creating an affirmative right to vote for all mentally-competent adults.

Have nonpartisan commissions draw legislative and congressional districts.

Pass a Constitutional amendment stating that only individual human beings (not corporations) have the rights of persons.

Prosecute financial fraud.

Restore the Glass-Steagall Act.

Break up the “too big to fail” banks.

Enact the Employee Free Choice Act aka Card Check.

Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.

Raise the mimium wage and index it to inflation.

End the “war on drugs”.

Allow re-financing of student loans by the Federal Reserve at the same rates it gives to big banks.

Allow Bankruptcy Courts to modify mortgage loans of underwater homeowners to fair market value.

Disapprove the Keystone XL Pipeline border crossing.

Break off negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

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Each proposal is also a link that will provide more information.

What have I overlooked?  What have I got wrong?

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Why do so many U.S. workers hate their jobs?

June 26, 2013
Gallup Poll Engaged Disengaged Unhappy Workers

Double click to enlarge.

With workloads increasing, wages and salaries stagnant or worse and the gap between workers and management ever-increasing, it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent Gallup poll finds 70 percent of American workers are unhappy in their jobs.

What is surprising, at least to me, is the reason—not wages, hours or benefits, but the way they are treated by their bosses.  Also surprising is how discontent is spread up and down the economic scale.  Corporate managers and professionals are almost as unhappy as low-level factory and service workers.

Gallup estimated that out of the 100 million Americans with full time jobs, about 30 million are “engaged,” meaning that they are actively trying to do a good job; 50 million are “not engaged,” meaning they are doing what they are asked to do and nothing more; and 20 million are “disengaged,” meaning they are actively hostile and costing their employers money.

As Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times, it doesn’t cost much to praise good work, provide opportunities for learning and growth and be open to suggestions.  Companies such as Costco that value their employees frequently outperform companies such as Walmart that don’t.  So why don’t they?

I think part of the explanation lies in what a couple of management scholars called “stupidity management.”   The top management in such an organization sets a narrow, usually quantifiable, goal and insists that it not be questioned.  A low-level manager in such an organization is required to push people to achieve unreasonable goals.  Being in that kind of position certainly would not improve my disposition.

Click on Why most Americans hate their jobs (or are just ‘checked out’) for details about Gallup’s findings in The Week.

Click on Checking Out for comment by Timothy Egan in the New York Times.

Click on ON MOTIVATION for comment on Gin and Tacos.

Click on Costco: doing well by acting decently for the benefit of being a good boss.

Click on The stupidity theory of organizations for a possible explanation of why more companies aren’t like Costco.

Hat tips to Eschaton and Balloon Juice.

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The worst thing about work: the boss

June 26, 2013

DataBADBOSSfinal_21746

The infographic is from Inc. magazine for November, 2012.

Chomsky on advertising and anarchism

June 26, 2013

chomsky-intvu-cover

Professor Noam Chomsky gave an interesting interview to Modern Success magazine about a month ago.  Here’s his observation about advertising.

… Commercial advertising is fundamentally an effort to undermine markets.  We should recognize that. If you’ve taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices.  You take a look at the first ad you see on television and ask yourself — Is that it’s purpose?  No it’s not. It’s to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices.

And these same institutions run political campaigns.  It’s pretty much the same: you have to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices.  And so this is only one aspect of the PR industry. 

Here’s his definition of anarchism.

… Anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics.  Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy.  It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified.  It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them.  Their authority is not self-justifying.  They have to give a reason for it, a justification. 

And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.

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Julian Assange on the Bradley Manning show trial

June 25, 2013

Julian Assange said in an interview Monday that the Bradley Manning court-martial is a show trial.   Just like the show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the verdict has been pre-determined, and the purpose of the trial is to convince the public of the defendant’s guilt.

The judge has ruled out the Manning’s lawyers main line of defense, which is that the information he released was wrongly over-classified, and allowed only one of 33 witnesses the defense wanted to call.  The prosecution will call 141 witnesses, some of whom will present their testimony in secret.  Access by the press is controlled, and less than a quarter of those who applied were granted press credentials.

Assange pointed out that many American newspapers published articles using the information Manning revealed, but not one of them contributed to Manning’s defense fund.  Some reporters may have done so individually, however.

Attacking the leaker

June 25, 2013

Attacking the Leaker

Hat tip to Daily Kos.   Click on Archive | Matt Bors for more of his cartoons.

Medical ethics and the Gitmo hunger strike

June 25, 2013

991

More than 100 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are in the 139th day of a hunger strike.  They say they’d rather starve to death than endure continued imprisonment.  Their jailers, with the cooperation of military doctors, are force-feeding them through tubes.  George J. Annas and other Boston University medical professors, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, say that this is a violation of medical ethics.  So does the American Medical Association.  I think they’re right.

Under the Bush administration, some 779 alleged terrorists from all over the world were brought to Guantanamo Bay for questioning.  Some of them were captured by bounty-hunters in Afghanistan, and the military took the word of the captors that they really were terrorists.  The U.S. military reviewed their cases, and have released all but 166 prisoners.

Of those prisoners, the CIA, FBI and the Justice and Defense departments have determined that 86 have committed no crime, pose no imminent threat and should be released.  The Obama administration says that it has identified only 46 that need to be kept at Guantanamo indefinitely.

So why not at least release the 86?  Why can’t the Obama administration do what the Bush administration did?

If you’re innocent, and you’ve been determined to be “not guilty” by some process, and you still are imprisoned with no hope of release, what are you to do?  The Gitmo prisoners started a hunger strike on Feb. 6.   They said they are willing to starve to death if they are not released.  Guantanamo military spokesmen admitted a few days ago that 104 are still on strike, and 44 are being force-fed by having tubes jammed down their throats.

This is an inherently painful procedure.  Many people with terminal illnesses prefer to go to hospices for the dying rather than prolong their lives a short time by this means.  Reports from Guantanamo indicate that the military authorities are making the process as painful as possible, in order to break the strike.

Hunger strikes are an old tactic by otherwise-helpless prisoners.  Hunger strikes go back at least to lawbreaking women suffragettes in Great Britain at the turn of the last century, and forcible feeding was regarded as a form of torture back then.

It is a powerful tactic because it is embarrassing to authorities.  Although President Obama is willing to kill people he deems terrorists by flying killer drones, letting people die while in his custody is a different matter.

What is the ethical role of physicians in this?  Isn’t it the duty of a physician to intervene to prevent suicide?  The answer to that is that the prisoners are not suicidal, any more than Mahatma Gandhi was suicidal when he began to “fast unto death” in 1932 to protest a new Indian Constitution that separated the electorate by caste.   Gandhi didn’t want to die, but he was willing to risk death rather than accept what he regarded as an injustice.  So it is with the prisoners.

The American Medical Association in an April letter to the Secretary of Defense called forcible feeding unethical and inhumane.  “Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” the AMA rightly said.

The more important question, which the hunger strike is meant to underline, is what the U.S. government should do about these prisoners.   If some of them are alleged to be criminals, they should be put on trial, punished if convicted and freed are acquitted.  Some of them are enemy combatants captured on the battlefield and are considered still a threat, they should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva convention, with access to the Red Cross and human rights organizations.  All others should be freed immediately.  President Obama has authority to do this.

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Links for Tuesday morning reading 6/25/31

June 25, 2013

How Obamacare Could Flatline by David Moberg in In These Times.

Loopholes in the Affordable Care Act are likely to leave millions of Americans worse off than they are now.   The ACA gives Republicans have many means to sabotage the act, and employers and insurance companies many means to shift the cost of health insurance to individuals.   The ACA will extend health insurance coverage to many Americans, but for some, it is likely to be less affordable than it is now.

Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S. in by Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy newspapers.

In order to prevent leaks, the administration last year launched an unprecedented Insider Threat Program, which requires government employees to report “high risk persons or behaviors” or face penalties, including possible criminal charges.   The initiative is intended to stop not only leaks of classified information, but any kind of unauthorized disclosure, and applied to the whole government, including the Department of Agriculture, Social Security Administration and Peace Corps.  Creepy!

Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans by Michael Hastings for Buzzfeed.

Whistleblowers, journalists and transparency advocates are being persecuted and sometimes imprisoned while Democrats in Congress turn their backs.   This is the last article written by this brilliant and aggressive young journalist before his sudden death.

Snowden sought Booz Allen job to gather evidence on NSA surveillance by Lana Lam of the South China Morning Post.

That’s what the man said.

Where Is Edward Snowden? Reporters Are Chasing Rumors and Shadows, in Russia and Beyond by Miriam Elder in The Guardian.

Edward Snowden has committed the ultimate crime in the eyes of the NSA, CIA and FBI, which is to make them look like fools.

Time Cover Story Wrongly Attacks Atheists For Not Helping Out Victims of Oklahoma Tornadoes by Hehment Mehta for Patheos.

Atheists helped a lot, not only as individuals, but as organized groups.

Will it be the Obama tar sands pipeline?

June 24, 2013

The Keystone XL tax-free export zone plan

June 24, 2013
keystone_blue_274480_461--his-res

Double click to enlarge.

Click on Global Research for background and links to more information.

Click on Tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline for my previous post on why the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea.

The Obama legacy

June 24, 2013

When Obama leaves office, it will almost certainly be true that he’ll have investigated, prosecuted, and jailed more whistle-blowers than torturers.

via Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic.

Links for Monday morning reading 6/24/13

June 24, 2013

Where Did Our ‘Inalienable Rights’ Go? by Max Frankel in the New York Times.   Hat tip for this to Daniel Brandt.

Max Frankel, former editorial page editor of the New York Times, pointed out that information gathered in secret is a potent weapon, and the temptation to use this weapon for political ends or for purposes unrelated to terrorism can be irresistible.

What makes secret spying more dangerous, he wrote, is that so much of it is farmed out to private sub-contractors, whose executives move in and out of government and have a financial incentive to make the surveillance as far-reaching as possible.

Frankel proposed a special Intelligence Court, like the U.S. Tax Court, whose judges are confirmed by the Senate for terms long enough to allow them to become real experts.  The judges would inform the public of the general nature of the requests that come before them, and their record of approval and denial; they also would have authority to hire lawyers to question the government’s evidence.

The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.

One of the causes of the financial crash of 2008 is that so many investors trustingly bought worthless securities that were rated AAA by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.  The question is: Were they incompetent or crooked?  Matt Taibbi has the answer and the evidence.

McLibel leaflet was co-written by undercover police officer Bob Lambert by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans in The Guardian.

McDonald’s British branch tried to shut down a group of green activists by suing them for damages for an allegedly libelous pamphlet under Britain’s stringent libel laws.   The activists won, after the longest civil trial in British history.  Now it turns out that that an undercover agent infiltrating the group helped write the pamphlet.  This is not the only example, either in Britain or the USA, of police infiltrating radical groups and trying to get them into trouble.

Why the TPP is all about corporate power, not trade by David Cobb of the Green Party’s Green Shadow Cabinet.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Global Corporate Coup, Assault on Democracy and National Sovereignty by Kevin Zeese of the Centre for Research on Globalization, which has a menu of links to statements by members of the Green Shadow Cabinet.

I know Democrats who are as opposed to the Green Party as they are to the Republican Party.  For them, the only significant thing the Green Party ever did was to run Ralph Nader for President in 2000, and the only significant reason Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000 was that Nader took votes away from Gore in Florida.  Their moral: Never aspire to anything better than the choices offered by the two major parties.

In fact, there is more good sense coming out of the Green Shadow Cabinet than the whole Obama administration.

Belief in Global Warming Drops After Cold Winter by Megan Gannon for LiveScience.

An atheist critique of Christopher Hitchens

June 23, 2013

An avowed atheist named Curtis White has attacked the late Christopher Hitchens for being unfair to religion.   He stated in an article entitled Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors on the Salon web site this morning that Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is not only wrong, but dishonest.  He said Hitchens’ book was full of factual errors and failed to appreciate how much of culture, philosophy and civilization itself is embedded in religion—both valid criticisms.

Beyond this, White attacked Hitchens for his belief in individual reason and conscience, which is not a valid criticism.  White thinks reason and conscience are incoherent concepts, and no substitute for the authority of poetry and religion.  So he may be an atheist, but he is not a freethinker or a rationalist.

I’ve encountered this kind of anti-anti-religious polemic before, when people without definite religious beliefs themselves say atheists are out of line for attacking religion.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

White did not mention the most important theme of God Is Not Great—that religion makes it possible to commit crimes with impunity.  Hitchens piled up example after example.   When the theocratic ruler of Iran took out a murder contract on an allegedly blasphemous writer, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem condemned the writer’s irreverence, not the instigation to murder.  Catholic clerics who helped instigate the Rwandan genocide were given sanctuary in France at the urging of the Vatican.

The Bush administration for supposedly religious reasons worked against use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Muslim governments have sentenced people to death merely for renouncing Islam.  American religious fanatics bombed abortion clinics and murdered abortion doctors.  Religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank are a chief obstacle to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Hitchens claimed that his examples show that organized religion is all or mostly bad.  I don’t agree, but I think that he did show that religion provides a shield people to get away with things that anyone else would be condemned and punished for. Suppose a public school superintendent shielded a teacher who sexually abused little boys – you can imagine what would happen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Ireland for years protected pedophile priests and got away with it.

GodIsNotGreatUnfortunately, as White correctly noted, God Is Not Great was riddled with easily check-able factual errors.

Contrary to Hitchens, the Q document is not a lost book that formed the basis of the four Gospels. The Dalai Lama does not seek to return as hereditary ruler of Tibet. “Syntopic” is not the opposite of “apocryphal.”  Catholic Maryland in colonial times never barred Protestants from public office.  The Bible scholar Bart (not “Barton”) Ehrman was not the first one who found that early versions of Mark had no mention of meetings with the resurrected Jesus.  I think I could add more examples, if I had the book in front of me.

I think these mistakes were due to carelessness rather than intentional dishonesty, as White charges.  The errors do not affect Hitchens’ main arguments, but they do undermine his credibility.

Hitchens’ insistence that religion is all bad, and that opponents of religion are all good, forced him into strenuous intellectual contortions.  He had to explain away the evangelical Protestants who campaigned for abolition of slavery on the one hand, and the crimes of the atheist Stalin on the other, which he did not convincingly do and could not have done.

As White points out, our civilization and culture are a product of religion, even for atheists like Hitchens.  In Western civilization, without Christianity, there is no Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Flannery O’Connor, no Christmas carols or Negro spirituals, no Sistine Chapel or Chartres cathedral, no Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Archbishop Romero.

If I were better educated, I am sure I could make up an equivalent list for other civilizations.  I can’t imagine China without Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, India without Hinduism or the Muslim world without its core religion.

Religious congregations provide people with community, ritual, moral ideals and a way to understand their feelings of transcendence.  I have been impressed throughout my life by the simple, unpretentious goodness of ordinary religious people.  Hitchens was unable to acknowledge this.

But religious belief is not necessarily inspiring or consoling.  Hitchens wrote a chapter on the doctrines of blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment and guilt for failing impossible tasks, which reflects my own experience.  I remember the sense of guilt I felt as a young teenage boy as I listened to Easter sermons about the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and how it was because of the sins of people like me that Jesus had to suffer a horrible death on my cross.  I heard about this every Easter. It was almost too much to bear.

I was freed by the use of reason, the strange metaphysical concept that, according to White, nobody can define.  For me, reason requires asking two questions: Does this make sense?  Does it contradict known facts?  It did not make sense to me that a loving Heavenly Father could be deterred from sentencing me to an eternity of pain only by the torture and death of someone else, and so I stopped believing it.

White contends that conscience comes from religious teaching, not the other way around.  I thought the same for many years, and it bothered me that I did not have any supposed religious foundation for my moral beliefs.  What changed my mind was reading Kierkegaard’s essay on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because he thought God commanded him to do so.  If Abraham not been willing, Kierkegaard wrote, then he would have put his love for his son and his personal moral beliefs ahead of belief in God.

Today’s world is full of people who believe that God has commanded them to kill, and, like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” they put their faith in God ahead of their affections or their moral beliefs.  That kind of faith is evil.

White, who does not believe in God, affirms religion as the source of morality.  But if God does not exist, where do religion’s moral teachings come from?  They must come from human beings, based on their own individual thoughts and feelings.   So how would that be different from humanism?  I would respect White more if he weren’t so reticent about his own beliefs.

White’s Salon essay is a chapter of a newly-published book, The Science Delusion, which I haven’t read.   The title indicates it is a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I have no quarrel with White if all he does is stress the importance of literature, philosophy and tradition, and defend them against foolish claims that science can replace them.   But based on the sample chapter, I think I would not like his book.

The Salon chapter is a vituperative personal attack based not on what Hitchens wrote, but on motives White attributes to Hitchens without evidence.  God Is Not Great was published in 2007.  Hitchens died in 2011.  White had plenty of time to attack Hitchens when he was alive to answer back.   But a living dog is always a match for a dead lion.

Click on Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors for Curtis White’s full Salon article

Click on The real problem with Curtis White’s The Science Delusion for a review of White’s book.

Click on Taking on scientism’s big bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins and Pinker for another review of White’s book.

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Good advice for the new graduating class

June 23, 2013

This is based on a commencement speech that was never delivered and was not written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Click on Real ‘sunscreen speech’ author sets the record straight and Sunscreen, Vonnegut and the Internet for the true story of the sunscreen speech.

Click on Commencement Speech for the text.

Hat tip to Unqualified Offerings.

It’s a long, long way to Mars

June 22, 2013

1.earth

2.moon

3.i-never-knew-mars-was-that-far-away

4.distance

But to really get feel for the distance to our neighboring planet, I recommend you click on How Far Is It to Mars?, an interactive GIF.

Hat tip to Making Light.

Why wages are falling (British version)

June 21, 2013

Rising profits, declining wages in Great Britain

Rising profits share, declining wages share in Great Britain

A British blogger reports that the same thing is going on in Britain as in the USA.

Back in the 70s and 80s, bosses could often not efficiently monitor their workers. To keep pilfering and skiving within tolerable limits they therefore had to pay better than market-clearing wages, to buy goodwill.  The upshot was that wages rose even during downturns, because bosses feared that real wage cuts would create discontent and thus increase thieving, insubordination and malingering.

This led to a huge literature in economics on efficiency wages, gift exchange and insider-outsiders, which tried to explain high and sticky real wages.

However, as Frederick Guy and Peter Skott have shown, socio-technical change since the 80s such as CCTV, containerization and computerized stock control has made it easier for bosses to monitor workers.  Direct oversight means they don’t need to worry about buying workers’ goodwill.  They are instead using the Charles Colson strategy: “When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Years ago, firms wanted smaller but motivated workforces.  Now they can control workers directly, they don’t need to worry so much about motivation except, of course for top-level managers who cannot be directly monitored – hence their rising incomes.

All this has three implications:

1. Talk of “wage rage” misses an important point.  At the point of production – to use a quaint Marxian phrase – there is little meaningful rage, because workers can do little to fight falling real wages.  (This poses the danger that such rage will find perhaps misdirected political expression, such as in antipathy towards immigrants.)

2. Issues of industrial organization – how firms are organized – have important macroeconomic effects. Macroeconomics cannot be easily studied separately from industrial organization.   Economists need to look inside the “black box” of industrial structure.

3. You cannot understand economics without understanding power.  The fact is that bosses’ power has risen and (many) workers’ power has declined. In this sense, the rising incomes of the 1% and the fall in real wages for the average worker are two manifestations of the same process.

Click on Stumbling and Mumbling for the original.  Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Click on The Market Oracle for the source of the chart.

Why is the TPP draft treaty such a big secret?

June 20, 2013

President Obama in his last State of the Union address said that he hopes to see the United States ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an proposed treaty among at least 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific that would set rules of what members governments could and couldn’t do in regard to financial regulation, intellectual property rights and much else.

But the Obama administration refuses to disclose precisely what is in the draft treaty or what the United States is asking for.  That’s classified information.

That is to say, the classification system, whose original stated purpose was to make it a crime to disclose military secrets to foreign enemies, is being used to make it a crime to reveal the government’s proposed trade treaty to the American public.

Government bodies have held closed and secret meetings from time immemorial, and journalists and legislators have found out about them as best they could.  But making it a crime to reveal what goes on in those meetings has historically been regarded as unconstitutional.

At some point, of course, the text of the treaty will have to be disclosed.  The Obama administration’s intent seems to be to keep everything secret until the last moment, and thus rush the treaty through Congress on a “fast track” vote with a minimum of discussion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the outspoken Massachusetts Democrat, courageously voted against Michael Froman to be U.S. trade representatives because of his refusal to answer simple questions about the TPP.  Here’s what she said about it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.  In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it.  This argument is exactly backwards.  If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.

I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too.

I asked the President’s nominee to be Trade Representative — Michael Froman – three questions: First, would he commit to releasing the composite bracketed text? Or second, if not, would he commit to releasing just a scrubbed version of the bracketed text that made anonymous which country proposed which provision. (Note: Even the Bush Administration put out the scrubbed version during negotiations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.)

Third, I asked Mr. Froman if he would provide more transparency behind what information is made to the trade office’s outside advisers.  Currently, there are about 600 outside advisers that have access to sensitive information, and the roster includes a wide diversity of industry representatives and some labor and NGO representatives too. But there is no transparency around who gets what information and whether they all see the same things, and I think that’s a real problem.

Mr. Froman’s response was clear: No, no, no.

via naked capitalism.

The outside advisers, by the way, reportedly include 500 representatives of industry and finance, and 100 from all other groups; they, too, are sworn to secrecy.  Senators and Representatives have been forbidden to share what little they know even with their own staffs.  Recently Rep. Alan Grayson, an outspoken Florida Democrat, was allowed to see a version of the draft treaty.

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told HuffPost on Monday that he viewed an edited version of the negotiation texts last week, but that secrecy policies at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative created scheduling difficulties that delayed his access for nearly six weeks.

The Obama administration has barred any Congressional staffers from reviewing the full negotiation text and prohibited members of Congress from discussing the specific terms of the text with trade experts and reporters.  Staffers on some committees are granted access to portions of the text under their committee’s jurisdiction.

“This, more than anything, shows the abuse of the classified information system,” Grayson told HuffPost.  “They maintain that the text is classified information.  And I get clearance because I’m a member of Congress, but now they tell me that they don’t want me to talk to anybody about it because if I did, I’d be releasing classified information.”

[snip]

“What I saw was nothing that could possibly justify the secrecy that surrounds it,” Grayson said, referring to the draft Trans-Pacific deal.  “It is ironic in a way that the government thinks it’s alright to have a record of every single call that an American makes, but not alright for an American citizen to know what sovereign powers the government is negotiating away.”

via Huffington Post.

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Slavery is not a thing of the past

June 20, 2013

We think of slavery as a thing of the past, but it isn’t.  The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 21 million people around the world in different kinds of forced labor.  And it isn’t just backward countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

The U.S. State Department issued its annual report on forced labor and human trafficking on Wednesday.  The Guardian reported

China is criticized for perpetuating human trafficking in 320 state-run institutions and the widespread domestic trafficking of girls and women into forced prostitution. In Russia, an estimated 1 million people are exposed to exploitative labor, including forced labor used in the construction of the Winter Olympic park in Sochi, according to the report.

The government of Uzbekistan continues to force older children and adults into slave labor in its cotton industry, the US state department says, and the country “remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through the implementation of state policy”.

via The Guardian.

Uzbekistan is noteworthy because coerced labor for production of cotton is government policy.  Uzbekistan has been dependent on its cotton industry since the days of the old Soviet Union.  Here is a report from a human rights organization.

Child cotton pickers in Uzbekistan

Photo by Thomas Grabka

In 2012, the Uzbek government mobilized the forced labor of over a million children and adults. Regional authorities enforced state cotton quotas on farmers, under threat of taking their land.  While there was not the nationwide shut-down of primary schools, authorities mobilized children ages 15 to 17 nationwide and younger children sporadically.

Children forced to pick cotton worked excessive hours, conducted arduous physical work in hazardous conditions and under threat of punishment, including expulsion from school.  Government employees – including teachers, doctors, nurses, and soldiers – and private business employees were forced to pick cotton under threat of dismissal from work, the loss of salary, pensions and welfare benefits.  Authorities extracted fines from those who failed to meet their cotton quotas.

This spring, the Uzbek government is again mobilizing children as young as age 10 and adults to plow and weed cotton fields.  On April 19, the deputy governor of Namangan region beat seven farmers for planting onions instead of cotton.  As is the case each year during the fall cotton harvest, the forced labor of government employees is once again disrupting the delivery of essential public services, including health care and education.

via Cotton Campaign.

Secretary of State John Kerry should be commended for allowing the report to go out, even though it embarrasses powerful countries such as Russia and China and U.S. allies such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

Congressional law allows for targeted economic sanctions against countries that practice or tolerate slavery, forced labor and human trafficking.   I don’t think this is likely anytime soon, but to name them and shame them is more than nothing.

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