Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Thomas Piketty on inequality in education

June 5, 2020

In the present-day USA, young people are told they have no economic future unless they have college educations.  Unless their parents are relatively affluent, the only way they can afford tuition is to go into debt—debt that literally can follow them all their lives.

Many of the top jobs in management, academia and government are only open to graduates of prestigious colleges.  So the educational system reinforces inequality.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty, in his new book Capital and Ideology, shows that this pattern exists across the Western world, including his native France.

It wasn’t always this way, he noted.  During the decades following the Second World War, the progressive and socialist political parties opened up higher education to working people in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Many of the beneficiaries of these programs became leaders of the moderately progressive and socialist parties.  They became what Piketty called the Brahmin Left, an educational elite, which, according to him, lost touch with the wage earners without college degrees.  He said in an interview:

If you look at education policies, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a relatively egalitarian platform of investing in primary and secondary education for all and bringing everyone to the end of secondary school. Gradually, in the 1980s and 1990s there was the rise of higher education, but this egalitarian platform has been abandoned in some cases.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in terms of access to universities. I show in the book that if you look at a country like the United States, there is data now available on the relationship between parental income and access to education that shows if your parents are poor, you still have a 25% chance to enter higher education, but when your parents are rich, you have a 95% chance.

Actually, this is understating the impact on equality of opportunity because of course the universities that those with rich parents have access to are not the same as the universities that those with poor parents have access to.

If you look at the amount of education investment, you find that even in a supposedly more egalitarian public system like France, the picture is unequal.

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Thomas Piketty on corporate co-determination

June 5, 2020

I’ve written a good bit about Thomas Piketty’s new book.  Click on the Capital and Ideology tag to read my previous posts about it.  In this post, I’m going to discuss his ideas on corporate governance.

Great corporations typically begin with an individual who has a vision—a Steve Jobs, a Walt Disney, a George Eastman, a Henry Ford, a Soichiro Honda or a Jack Ma.

The drive and creativity of the individuals make the companies what they are.  Over time, though, the companies devolve into authoritarian bureaucracies, little junior watered-down versions of the Soviet Union.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Oxford Law Faculty

The goal of reform would be how to prevent corporate abuse without stifling enterprise and beneficial innovation.  Piketty’s solution is to adopt German-Scandinavian co-determination, under which corporations of a certain size have to allow employees to choose a certain number of corporate directors.

In Germany, according to Piketty,  all firms with more than 2,000 employees must reserve half the seats on their oversight committees to worker representatives.  All firms with 500 to 1,999 employees must reserve a third of their oversight committee seats to worker representatives.  There also are factory committees with union representatives who have a say one work rules and training.

However, in Germany, the oversight committees only supervise day-to-day operations of companies.  Policy is set by directorates, on which workers have no representation.

Other countries reserve one-third of seats for workers on companies of a certain size.  In Sweden, the threshold is 35 employees; in Norway, 50 employees; in Austria, 500 employees.

In April 2018, according to Wikipedia, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz sponsored the Reward Work Act,  which would amend federal legislation to require all companies listed on national stock exchanges to have one-third board representation for workers.  Polls showed majority support among Americans for the measure.

In August 2018, Elizabeth Warren sponsored a new Accountable Capitalism Act that would require 40 percent of the board of directors be elected by employees in federal corporations with taxable incomes over $1 billion.

In Britain, the Bullock Report in 1977, during the Harold Wilson administration, called for co-determination in big businesses based on the formula 2x + y. In this, workers and stockholders would have equal representation on boards of directors, but there would be two government representatives to break a tie.  It never became reality.

In practice, even though workers have a voice, the final authority rests with the owners.  I think there still is a benefit to having worker representatives.

Employees usually know things about how companies operate that the top managers don’t.  This can be valuable in avoiding the Stupidity Paradox, in which layers of bureaucrats demand good news and truthful information doesn’t filter up.

It’s also good for employees, especially union representatives, to have access to the same information that top management has.  Of course all these desirable goals can be thwarted by a sufficiently cunning and authoritarian management.

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Thomas Piketty on equality through taxation

June 4, 2020

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is the most comprehensive study I know about the causes of economic inequality.  He gathered a vast amount of data and made sense of it.  To read my comments on his research, click on this, this, this and this.

In the last chapter, he outlined proposals for a “participatory socialism” to make society less unequal.  He saw three main ways to do this: (1) taxation, (2) reform of corporate governance and (3) educational reform.  This post will be about taxation.  I will take up the other two later.

His plan is based on steeply graduated income taxes, inheritance taxes and new taxes on wealth.  These were to be used to finance a wealth endowment of 60 percent of average wealth to every citizen at age 25 and a guaranteed income of 60 percent of average income.

He does not make absolute equality his goal, but he would allow a much narrower band of inequality than exists today.

I’ve long been indignant at the growing extremes of inequality in my country and the abuses of power of the very rich.  Reading Piketty forces me to think about just how much equality I want and how much I would give up to attain it.

Piketty wrote in earlier chapters of Capital and Ideology about how higher taxes have often been the key to greater national power and wealth.

One of history’s mysteries is how it was that European nations could defeat great Asian empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire in India or the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in China, when, prior to the Industrial Revolution, they were equal in wealth and technology to the European nations.  It was the Chinese, for example, who invented gunpowder.

Piketty’s answer is that the Europeans gained an advantage through a higher level of taxation.  Tax revenue across Europe and Asia prior to the modern era was roughly 1 to 2 percent of national income.  This gave a king or emperor enough revenue to reign, but not to exercise tight control over his realm.

This changed in Europe, during the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when military competition forced kings to increase their revenues to 8 to 10 percent of national income.

Click to enlarge

The greater revenue enabled kings to become absolute monarchs, exercising almost as much control over their citizens as a 20th century president or prime minister.  It also enabled them to put armies in the field that the Turks, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese could not match.

Western governments’ revenue was bumped up again in the early 20th century, to 30 to 50 percent of national income.  This made possible the total wars of the early 20th century.  But it also gave governments enough money to pay for universal public education, old age pensions, public health and the other services of the welfare state.

This was only tolerable because the Western nations had grown rich enough that their people could give up a big fraction of their incomes to government and still enjoy a high material standard of living.

It would not have been possible in, say, France in the time of Louis XIV.  The taxes he levied to finance his wars reduced the peasantry to misery and, in some cases, starvation (because the nobles enjoyed most of the national income, but paid no taxes).

The same conditions may exist in poor African countries today.  But in rich Western countries, it is technologically and economically feasible to raise taxes revenues to 50 percent of national income, which is necessary for PIketty’s program.

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Piketty’s new book on economic inequality

May 26, 2020

The French economist Thomas Piketty made a big splash with Capital in the 21st Century (published 2013, translated into English 2014).  He showed why, all other things being equal, the rich will get richer and the rest of us will get less.

In different countries in different historical periods, the rate of return on income-producing property exceeded the rate of economic growth.  This was true whether the income-producing property was real estate, government bonds, corporate stocks or something else.

What this meant was that, in the absence of revolution, war or something else that wiped out the value of their assets, the rich would get richer and everybody else would be left behind.

Piketty’s new book, CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY  (published 2019, translated 2020), is more ambitious and complicated.  He thinks it is an even better book that its predecessor and I agree.  It is a great work.

He looked at all the forms that economic inequality has taken in the past few centuries and all the different ways that inequality has been rationalized.  While his earlier book was based mainly on data from France, Great Britain and the United States, the new book tries to be global in scope.

He said it is important to understand not only the forms of economic inequality, but the reasons why people accept them.

His book covers several kinds of “inequality regimes”:

  • “Ternary” societies in which most wealth is controlled by hereditary kings and aristocrats and an established church or religious institution.
  • “Ownership” societies in which property ownership is regarded as a sacred right, superseding everything else.
  • Slave and colonial societies.
  • “Social democratic” societies, which limit the rights of property owners.
  • The hyper-capitalism of today, which is a backlash against social democracy and Communism.

The degree of inequality in any nation or society is not the result of impersonal economic law, he wrote; it is the result of choices that could have been different.  History does not consist of class struggles; it consists of a struggle of ideas and a struggle for justice.

To understand inequality, he wrote, it is necessary to understand the reasons for choices at various “switch points” of history—the French Revolution, the British constitutional crisis of 1911, privatization in Russia after the fall of Communism.

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Book note: Complicity by Iain Banks

May 22, 2020

The late Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was known for a series of science fiction novels set against the background of a future society called The Culture, in which the mass of humanity lived in artificial habitats moving through interstellar space, watched over by artificial intelligences that protected and provided for them.

Members of The Culture lived indefinitely in comfort and safety and were enabled to engage in any possible activity or indulge in any possible pleasure that did not threaten the whole.

In a world where anything is possible, does anything matter?  What could members of The Culture do that would give their lives meaning or provide a plot for a readable novel?

In Banks’ novels, they engage in diplomacy, espionage and war withe the goal of bringing other sentient beings, human and non-human, into The Culture.

He wrote novels on this theme, which can be enjoyed as action-adventure stories or as portraits of a utopia (or is it a dystopia).  I read a few of them.  I thought the best was the first, Consider Phlebas (1987).  It was enjoyable both as an action-adventure yarn and also as an SF utopia—or is it a dystopia?

He also wrote non-SF novels as plain Iain Banks.  I never got around to reading them until recently, when I picked up a copy of his crime novel Complicity (1993).

The viewpoint character in Complicity is a Scottish newspaper writer named Cameron Colby, who writes a series of exposes of rich and powerful people, based on tips from an anonymous source.

They include an arms merchant, a pornographer, a judge, a corrupt newspaper publisher and an businessman whose negligence killed a thousand people in an industrial accident overseas.

Colby had written that the world would be better off without such people, and a serial killer apparently took him at his word.

The evildoers in high places are killed off one by one in appropriate ways.  The negligent businessman is killed in an explosion.  The corrupt publisher is literally “spiked” [1].  The pornographer is killed in a sexually degrading way.  And so on.

The murders are described in the second person [2] in such an involving way and in such detail that they almost like seem like manuals of instruction.  I almost feel like these chapters should come with a warning that these parts of the novel are for entertainment purposes only and the reader should not try this at home.

Colby is a weak character, addicted to tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, computer games and kinky sex with a married woman. As the murders proceed, he himself becomes a suspect.

He tries to trap the killer and instead himself becomes the killer’s prisoner.  Instead of killing him, the killer tries to justify himself.

You agree that Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg deserved to die? the killer asks.  You agree these criminals have done more harm than any individual murderer?  You agree they are never going to be brought to justice by legal means, least of all by your journalism?

Well, then?  What have I done wrong?

The killer spares Colby and gives him a chance to turn him in before he makes his getaway.

Complicity is gruesome and sordid.  I don’t recommend it to fans of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers.  But it is compelling and I kept reading to find out what happened next.

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How the U.S. mandated racial segregation

April 30, 2020

I am old enough to remember when black people were barred from living in the suburbs of American cities, including those in the North and West.

 I attributed this to the racism of middle-class white Americans.  Although backed up by the real estate industry and sometimes enforced by mob violence, I saw it as the total result of the racist attitudes of many, many separate individuals.

Most of my liberal white friends did the same.  It was not, so we thought, de jure segregation, imposed by government as in the South, but de facto segregation, the result of uncounted individual decisions.

Richard Rothstein, in THE COLOR OF LAW: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, showed this isn’t so.  Segregation was imposed by the government, including the federal government.

Much of this is a product of the  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Rothstein depicted the New Dealers, a majority of them were unapologetic white racists, with a minority of white liberals mostly too timid (there were a few exceptions, such as Eleanor Roosevelt) to object.

He described in great detail how the New Deal excluded black people.  Even though such policies no longer exist, at least not in such blatant form,  their impact continues into the present day.

According to Rothstein, these policies were illegal.  They violated the 5th, 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

Therefore, he wrote, the U.S. government owes compensation to the heirs of those whose rights were violated.  Just how you do this is a hard question, for which I don’t think Rothstein has a good answer.  This said, even though I was brought up to admire FDR, I can’t deny the justice of his indictment.

Rothstein’s focus is on housing policy.  President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made home ownership a new reality for millions of Americans, but U.S. subsidies for homebuilders and home buyers were conditional on racial segregation.

The government, backed by the real estate industry, insisted on racially restrictive covenants, barring black people from better neighborhoods.  Black people could not get Federal Housing Administration loans to buy houses outside all-black neighborhoods.

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 to rescue homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages.  It purchased existing mortgages and refinanced them so that homeowners could afford the payments.

Payments also amortized the mortgages so that the homeowners built up equity in their homes.  If they sold their homes, they’d have something to keep.

In order to assess the risk. the HOLC hired real estate appraisers to assess risk of default of mortgages.  They created maps covering every city in the U.S., with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red.  Any neighborhood with an African-American living in it was colored red, even if it was a middle-class family with a good credit rating.

Then in 1934, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Administration, which insured 80 percent of the amount of bank mortgages.  But for a homeowner to be eligible for a mortgage, the home had to be in a non-risky neighborhood.

Not only that.  The FHA would not insure any mortgage for a non-white homeowner in a white neighborhood.

During World War Two, the federal government subsidized public housing projects for war workers.  But the projects were racially segregated, with African-Americans getting proportionately few and less desirable places.

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Anti-authoritarianism in a time of pandemic

April 15, 2020

James C. Scott, in his wise and witty book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, reviews ways we the people would be better off if we were less submissive to authority than we are.

He isn’t a full-fledged anarchist.  He understands the need for government.  That’s why he gives two cheers for anarchism instead of a full three cheers.

But he says the anarchists have a point.  Governments, corporations and other big institutions are more repressive than they need to be, and we the people have given up too much of our self-reliance and self-determination.

I read and liked Two Cheers when it first came out, and later read and liked two of Scott’s weightier books, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

I recently read it again, one chapter a month, as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.  We stopped meeting before we finished the book because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements.

The pandemic makes the issues Scott raised all the more important.  In times of pestilence, famine and war, we the people submit to authority as we never would normally, and concede rights that we might or might not get back after the emergency is over.

Alternatively, we have a rational fear of anarchy in the bad sense—a war of all against all for the scarce means of survival.

Here are Scott’s six arguments.

Chapter One: The Uses of Disorder and Charisma

Scott wrote about how anonymous individual defiance of law sets limits to government authority and sometimes is a prelude to revolution.  His examples include desertions from the Confederate army, English poachers violating the nobility’s game laws, armed farmers in the U.S. Midwest stopping foreclosures during the Great Depression, wildcat strikes in the same era and spontaneous civil disobedience of U.S. segregation laws in the 1960s.

He also pointed out how “charismatic” leaders, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt, acquire their popularity by noting carefully how their audiences respond, and adapting their message to their audience.

Scott recommended the practice of “anarchist calisthenics”—harmless disobedience of pointless laws and regulations.  He says this will mentally prepare you to resist actual tyranny if tyranny comes.

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Looking back on the influenza pandemic of 1918

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge. Source: Our World in Data.

I managed to acquire a copy of THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry before the libraries and bookstores closed.

It tells the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deadliest in history in terms of absolute numbers.

Nobody knows for sure how many died.  The old consensus estimate was 20 million; the new one is 50 million.  Barry believes that the virus killed at least 35 million and probably between 50 and 100 million people.

In the USA, the estimated pandemic death toll was 675,000—more Americans that were killed in battle or died of wounds in all the wars of the 20th century..

One of the worst things about the pandemic is that its highest death rate was among people in their 20s and 30s, the young and healthy whose immune systems over-reacted to the ‘flu virus.

If the highest estimate of the death toll is correct, from one in 10 to one in 12 of the world’s young adults may have died, according to Barry.

The influenza pandemic arose in a world at war, and spread because of the war, just as the coronavirus pandemic spread because of a globalized world economy.

Barry said the first cases of the new influenza were reported rural Haskell County, Kansas, and then in Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March, 1918, where draftees were being trained and readied to be shipped overseas.

A short time later it appeared in Camps Forrest and Greenleaf in Georgia, and rhino in 24 of the 36 U.S. Army camps.  It was reported in Brest, France, a short time after American troops arrived there.  Soon it spread to all the nations and colonies that participated in the war. and then over the whole world.

At first, it was no worse than ordinary influenza—the “grippe,” as people called it.  But a second, deadlier wave arose during the summer, a mutant form of the first.

It killed in frightening ways.  Some turned blue or black, because of lack of oxygen in the blood.  Some spurted blood from their noses and even eyes and ears, for reasons nobody yet understands.

There were some who had air migrate from congested lungs to air pockets under the skin, which made a crackling sound when bodies were turned over.  One nurse said she could never eat Rice Krispies again.

The United States in which the influenza arose was more of a police state that it has ever been, before or since.  When war was declared on April 6, 1917, every American and every American institution was expected to be fully committed to the war effort.

There was a spy network, a propaganda network and a war bond-selling network, all reaching into every American town and neighborhood.

A Food Administration, Fuel Administration, Railroad Administration and War Industries Board had absolute power to carry out their missions.

But there was no Health Administration, only a relatively powerless U.S. Public Health Service.  No federal or state agency had responsibility for fighting the pandemic.  A volunteer organization, the American Red Cross, filled that vacuum, along with municipal health departments, private physicians and a few dedicated scientists.

What federal authority did do was try to protect civilian morale by suppressing news of how bad the pandemic was.

The seriousness of the pandemic was only acknowledged in the last month or two of the war, and that was in the context of charging Germany with waging germ warfare.

Censorship also suppressed news of the pandemic in Britain, France and Germany.  The first news accounts came from Spain, a neutral country.  From this people got the idea that the ‘flu originated in Spain

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Human nature in a time of pestilence

March 25, 2020

I recently read an old paperback copy of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, which I’ve had on the shelf for decades.  If I ever read it before, I don’t remember..

The novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran.  It was published in 1947, but Camus wrote it during the German occupation of France during World War Two.

The novel’s real topic is not so much plague specifically as how people react to catastrophe.  Camus’ view is surprisingly comforting and reassuring.  The novel’s principal characters all rise to the occasion, and the political and social order, although under strain, functions as it should.

The novel begins with mysterious deaths of rats in the city, a sign of plague, but which Oran’s physicians and municipal authorities refuse to take seriously until people start dying.  The public can’t imagine something could happen that would prevent them from living their accustomed lives.

At first the public seeks to maintain a semblance of normal life while the plague rages.  As the death rate increases, the people forget what normal life was like and just deal with the ever-present threat.  Just as they’ve given up hope, the plague fades away, and people try to pick up where they left off, as if it never happened.

The novel’s six main characters show different ways of thinking and coping with catastrophe—what Camus called the Absurd, meaning things and events that have no purpose or meaning in human terms.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is a physician who at first finds it hard to believe the plague is real, but calls on the authorities to take action.  He heads an auxiliary hospital for plague victims and also helps enforce quarantine regulations.

He works long, exhausting hours.  He finds he has to harden his heart in order to do his duty.  When he visits a patient at home and finds the person is infected, he calls for an ambulance to take the person away, despite the pleas of relatives, who understand that they may never see the victim again.  In the later stages, he has to go to patients’ homes accompanied by police

He does not believe in God and denies having any overarching philosophical belief.  He does his job simply because he is a physician and that is his role.  When asked what he believes in, he replies, “human decency.”

Jean Tarroux is a mysterious character who seems to have nothing to do but hang out around town and observe life.  But then he takes the initiative to form volunteer auxiliaries to help fight the plague—for example, by disinfecting houses.

He reveals that he is a former revolutionary—a Communist, if you read between the lines, although this is never spelled out.  He joined the revolutionary cause because of his horror of capital punishment; he left it because the revolutionaries are killers themselves.

He speaks about how human beings carry plague within themselves, which I take to mean most human beings are willing to see other people die in order to save themselves or achieve their goals.

He says the great sin is refusing to speak the truth in plain language.  He says his desire is to find out whether you can be a saint without believing in God.

He is one of the last to die, hanging on to life as long as he can,  but rejecting comforting illusions.

Click to enlarge.

Father Paneloux is a Catholic priest who preaches a sermon about how the plague is God’s judgment on the sins of the people of Oran. Camus, although an atheist, took religious faith seriously and a lot of his philosophy, including this book, is a kind of dialogue with Christianity.

The priest says people ignore God’s commandments and reject his love because they confidently expect to be forgiven, but sometimes God’s patience is exhausted and he lets people suffer what they deserve.

He says God figuratively is standing over the city with a giant flail, which is used to thresh wheat and separate the  nourishing grain from useless chaff.  I find this a powerful image.

I think of the flail in terms of the coronavirus emergency, in which we are see who are the wheat (not just health workers, but grocery clerks, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners, truck drivers) and who are the chaff (hedge fund managers, corporate lobbyists, diversity trainers).

The priest joins the volunteer auxiliary and witnesses the slow, painful death of a child from the plague.  He later preaches another sermon on whether a child’s painful death can be God’s will.

He said that a Christian must believe that everything that happens is God’s will, even if you can’t understand the reason.  This includes the death of a child.  Otherwise you don’t really believe in God.

But he adds that if you accept human suffering and death as God’s will, you must be willing to suffer and die yourself.  Later Father Paneloux himself falls sick and dies painfully, but not from symptoms of the plague.

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Book note: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

February 26, 2020

When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, he and his team declined to be briefed on the work of the government they were now in charge of.  This was unprecedented.

His appointees were also contemptuous and willfully ignorant of the work they supposedly supervised.

Michael Lewis, a well-known non-fiction author, took it on himself to get the briefings that Trump declined.  The result is his 2018 book, THE FIFTH RISK.

He showed the harm that Trump administration is doing.  We Americans are at risk of a hollowing out of governmental capability equivalent to the past few decades of hollowing out of manufacturing capability.

But the real interest in the book is his report of work and accomplishments of American public servants.  He shows what we are in danger of losing.  It is a shame, but not unusual, to not value what you have until you are in danger of losing it.

Lewis wrote chapters about the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce, all of which have priorities different from what I thought.

§§§

The Department of Energy, for example, is not devoted to energy in general.  It devotes about half of its $30 billion annual budget goes to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  About $2 billion of that goes to tracking down the world’s missing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands.

Another one-fourth of the DoE budget goes to cleaning up nuclear sites, including $3 billion a year for the ongoing mess at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was developed during World War Two.  The DoE runs 17 national physics research laboratories, such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Oak Ridge and also sponsors research on renewable energy.

Lewis asked John MacWillaims, the former “chief risk officer” for the DoE, to list the five top risks he worried about  The top risk was an accident with nuclear weapons.  Other risks involved North Korean nuclear weapons, the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons and accidents to the electrical grid.

The fifth risk, MacWilliams said, is what he called “program management”—or what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have called “unknown unknowns.”  These are the risks you don’t know about because you never bothered to find out.

Donald Trump’s first budget eliminated the Department of Energy’s research program on renewable energy, and the largely successful $70 billion loan program for renewable energy startup companies.  It eliminated research on climate change.  It cut funding to national research laboratories so much that they had to lay off thousands of people.  It halved funding on work to protect the national electrical grid from sabotage or natural disaster.

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost,” Lewis wrote. “There is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

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China bids for world leadership

February 19, 2020

China has the world’s largest or second largest economy, depending on how it is measured.  It is world’s leading manufacturer and exporter.  It has nuclear weapons and the world’s largest standing army.

Its leader, Xi Jinping, has a plan to connect the interior of Eurasia an integrated whole, through construction of railroads and oil and gas pipelines.

This Belt and Roads Initiative, together with China’s informal military alliance with Russia, would make the interior of Eurasia an economic zone dominated by China and largely invulnerable to U.S. sea and air power.

It would mean world leadership for a nation whose leaders explicitly reject such ideas as universal values, intrinsic human rights, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary—ideas that we Americans consider foundations of Western civilization.

How likely is it that China’s leaders can realize these ambitions?  A scholar named Elizabeth C. Economy took a calm and skeptical look at China in a 2018 book entitled THE THIRD REVOLUTION: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.

The first revolution, in her view, was Mao Zedong’s victory over Chiang Kaishek in 1949.

Mao made China a unified nation free of foreign influence, and started China on the road to industrialization.  But his utopian dreams and totalitarian government brought China to the brink of collapse.

Hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Chinese were killed in purges.  Millions and maybe tens of millions starved to death because nobody dared tell the truth about his failed agricultural policies.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution, intended to break up a new emerging social hierarchy, reduced the whole country to chaos.

The second revolution, in her view, was the emergence of Deng Xiaoping.  He accomplished what few leaders in history have been able to do—reform an authoritarian government.   Typically reformers fail to change the system, like Khrushchev, or undermine the stability of what they are trying to reform, like Gorbachev.

Deng loosened the authority of the Communist Party and relaxed economic controls just enough to allow for individual initiative, while keeping control.   He set up a system of collective leadership with an orderly succession.

Unlike Mao, he kept in the background and exercised power from behind the scenes,  On the world scene, his policy was to quietly make China stronger without alarming the existing great powers.

His policies, and not Mao’s, produced a great leap forward in economic development.  China’s rise from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution was as great an economic miracle as the rise of Germany and Japan from the ashes of World War Two.  Dang was one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.

Many Western observers thought that as China became integrated into the world economy, it would adopt liberal and democratic values.  Xi Jinping’s third revolution is intended to prevent this from happening.

Xi has eliminated tern limits.  He evidently intends to serve for life, which could mean a succession struggle like the one that followed the death of Mao.  He has reaffirmed Communist Party control of the economy, and insists on ideological orthodoxy.

But what is the meaning of Communist ideology in a country with a stock exchange, giant profit-seeking corporations and 485 billionaires?  Under Xi, Communism is reduced to Chinese nationalism and obedience to authority..

One reason for the downfall of the Soviet Union was that people stopped believing in Marxism-Leninism as an ideal.   How long can the Chinese believe in a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that is indistinguishable from capitalism?

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The new Chinese surveillance state

January 29, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

December 31, 2019

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is a novel set in England in the late 1820s and early 1830s when the only role for middle-class and upper-class women was to be somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter.  Lower-class women, of course, were “free” to make their own way as servants.

It was published in incomplete form in 1866 after Mrs. Gaskell’s death.  The main plot thread is the progress of step-sisters Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick from being daughters to being wives.  I read it as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

It’s very readable, with likable believable characters and a moderately intriguing plot.  It’s also interesting as a portrait of a vanished way of life.

It is very different from North and South, which is the only other Gaskell novel I have read. While North and South is written in primary colors, so to speak, Wives and Daughters has many subtly different shades.

North and South is a report on the conflict between workers and factory owners in industrial Manchester, which is presented as a social problem that needs to be solved.

Wives and Daughters is full of shrewd observations about men and women and the different social classes relate to each other, but this is presented as an interesting and amusing reality, not as a problem.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of Dr. Gibson, a widower.  He is a good man, who is devoted to his patients.  He loves his daughter dearly and would do anything to make her happy, but he doesn’t make an effort to understand her.  He regards her desire for an education as silly, and unnecessary for a women.

Molly, on the other hand, devotes a lot of thought to understanding her dad.  Like Margaret Hale in North and South, she takes on adult responsibility at a young age and, in some ways, is more of a parent to her father than he is to her.

Early in the novel Dr. Gibson marries a widow, Clare Kirkpatrick.  She is a schoolmistress with a daughter, Cynthia, who is Molly’s age.  Being a schoolmistress or governess was the only profession open to respectable women in those days, and even that involved a step down in social rank, so she regards marriage as an escape.

Their courtship is very quick, and the two of them hardly know each other when they marry.  Because of their social position, they had few choices of marriage partners.  They wouldn’t marry down into the laboring class and they couldn’t marry up into the monied landowning class.

Their expectations are different.  Dr. Gibson wants a wife who will be a mother to Molly and keep house, but otherwise allow him to go on living as before.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick wants the perquisites of a higher social position and a household that upholds that position.

She is not cruel or malicious, but she is self-centered and never thinks about what other people think or want.  In her blindness to what others think or want, she is an example of how extreme selfishness makes you stupid.  She loves no-one, including her daughter.

Cynthia has grown up without experiencing a mother’s love.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick sent her away to school at a young age and treated her as a nuisance when she was at home.

She is exceedingly beautiful and charming.  She has the superpower of being effortlessly fascinating to men.  I’ve known women like that in my life, and so have most men.  So, interestingly, have the women in our reading group.

She is, like her mother, without an emotional core.  But unlike her mother, she is aware of what she lacks.  She regrets it and yet feels powerless to change.  She cares about what others think of her, but feels no true affection for anyone—except her stepsister Molly.

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Edward Snowden tells his story

December 5, 2019

In 2013, at age 29, Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous whistleblower.

He told the world that U.S. Intelligence agencies were gathering information on everyone on earth who’d ever made a phone call, text message or e-mail, used Google, Amazon, Facebook or a credit card or had electronic medical, educational or financial information on record.

His new book, PERMANENT RECORD, tells how he got the information out, and why he risked death and prison and suffered exile to do it.

I don’t think anybody, no matter how much they may question his actions, can doubt the sincerity of his motives.

He grew up in a family with a heritage of military and government service.  Both his parents had security clearances.

HIs basic values (like mine) were belief in American freedom and democracy as he was taught about them in school.  Also, like many others in the 1990s, he believed in computers and the Internet as a force for human liberation.

From a young age, he had a knack for analyzing systems for weaknesses.  He analyzed the grading criteria for his high school courses, and figured out that he could get a passing grade without doing any homework.

As a teenager, he found a hole in the security system of Los Alamos National Laboratories and pestered authorities until they acknowledged it and fixed it.

His first impulse after the 9/11 attacks was to enlist in the Army and try to qualify for the Special Forces.  But he was injured in a training accident and discharged.  He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency instead.

Organizations based on hierarchy and adherence to a chain of command do not usually welcome recruits who are given to pointing out flaws in the system.  But the CIA dealt with Snowden by giving him special permissions so they could use his talents.

As a CIA officer and later as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden gained unusual access to the whole range of CIA and NSA activities.  He became aware that they were spying not just on foreign governments and suspicious characters, but virtually everyone in the USA and abroad.

Knowledge is power.  If someone knows everything about me, they have power over me.  Most people (myself included) have done things they’re ashamed of, and wouldn’t want known.  Almost everyone has done or said something that can be made to look bad.

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would wiretap prominent figures and read their mail, then blackmail them.  There is no guarantee that the heads of the CIA and NSA would not use their knowledge to blackmail.  There is no guarantee they are not already doing so.

Government agencies that are doing this operate in secrecy.  They have power over us, but we the people can’t set limits on them because we don’t even know what is happening.

Snowden could not discuss his qualms with anyone, not even his lover, Lindsay Mills (now his wife).  To breathe a word to anyone would have been considered a violation of the Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Having reached a decision in silence, he had to make a plan silence and execute it alone.  He had to figure out exactly what the CIA and NSA were doing, how to prove it and how to disseminate that proof in a way that would have an impact.  Any error in his plan or its execution would have been fatal.

The strain must have been almost unbearable.  The temptation to confide in someone must have been almost irresistable (which was the downfall of his fellow whistleblower, Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning).

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Edward Snowden on the 9/11 attacks

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record.

Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11

Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a familiar name or just a familiar face—and imagine they’re gone.  

Imagine the empty houses.  Imagine the empty school, the empty classrooms.  All those people you lived among and who formed the fabric of your days, just not there anymore.

The events of 9/11 left holes.  Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.

Now consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.

Edward Snowden on the surveillance state

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record

Algorithms analyze…[our data] for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s only slightly more accurate than analog methods like palm reading.

Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand the its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation.

A website that tells you that because you liked this book, you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a mechanism of subtle coercion.

We can’t allow ourselves to be used in this way, to be used against the future.  We can’t permit our data to be used to sell us the very things that must not be sold, such as journalism.  If we do, the journalism we get will be merely the journalism we want, or the journalism the powerful want us to have, not the honest collective conversation that’s necessary.

We can’t let the godlike surveillance we’re under to be used to “calculate” our citizenship scores, or to “predict” our criminal activity; to tell us what kind of education we can have, or what kind of education we can have, or what kind of job we can have, or whether we can have an education or job at all; to discriminate against us based on our financial, legal and medical histories, not to mention our ethnicity or race, which are constructs that data often assumes or imposes.

And as for our most intimate data, our genetic information: if we allow it to be used to identify us, it will be used to victimize us, even to modify us—to remake the very essence of our humanity in the image of the technology that seeks its control.

Of course, all of the above has already happened.

The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

November 20, 2019

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

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How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

November 6, 2019

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.

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The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.

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When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.

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U.S. labor’s new strategies for a new century

October 15, 2019

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.  (==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)

A class war is being waged in the United States, and American workers are losing.  For the past 50 years, labor unions, the only institutions whose specific purpose is to defend workers’ rights, have gone from defeat to defeat.

New Deal protections of labor rights have been taken away, one-by-one, through court decisions, anti-labor laws and non-enforcement of labor laws.   Republican politicians, with few exceptions, regard unions as hated

American business is increasingly a network of supply chains, franchises and “independent” contractors,” which are almost impossible to shut down through strikes.  As a result, labor union membership has steadily fallen.

Steven Greenhouse, who was a long-time labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the state of American labor in his new book, BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.   

He reviewed the history of U.S. labor’s rise and decline. but the most interesting parts of the book are his reports on successful tactics and strategies of today’s labor movement.

They often operate outside the framework of labor law. I’m not surprised or shocked that unions sometimes defy the law.  Employers routinely break the law, in firing workers for belonging to unions, for example, or not paying workers for all hours worked.

They often bypass being certified as bargaining agents by the National Labor Relations Board or asking for legally-enforceable contracts.   Instead their power comes from their own solidarity and power.

They found allies in the broader community.  They used unconventional tactics.  Saul Alinsky would admire many of today’s labor leaders.  They didn’t confine themselves to strikes.  They organized boycotts, publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations and lawsuits—anything to inconvenience or embarrass their opponents.

But often when they won, management found they were better off treating their workers with respect than as enemies.

A large number of labor leaders and rank-and-file workers quoted by Greenhouse are immigrants, women and people of color.  I don’t think that’s affirmative-action reporting on his part.  It is the nature of today’s work force.

Here are some of the stories he told/

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About 90 percent of fresh tomatoes in the USA are picked in Immokalee, Florida.  Tomato pickers historically worked long hours in the 90+ degree temperatures.

Women pickers were sexually harassed.  Pickers were often cheated of their wages.  A few were actually enslaved—held prisoner and forced to work without wages.

Farm workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which supposedly guarantees the right to organize unions.

In 1991, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education.

The founding group included three Haitians  pickers who’d been peasant organizers in their own country, but were now refugees in the United States.

They followed the Latin American labor tradition of “popular education,” using classes and skits to teach about labor history, U.S. agribusiness and how to educate and organize.

In 1993, they carried out their first strike.  They won minor victories from different growers, but then decided to focus instead on Taco Bell, a principal buyer of tomatoes.  In 2001, they organized a national boycott of Taco Bell.  Twenty colleges barred Taco Bell from campus.

After a huge demonstration at Taco Bell’s 2005 stockholders’ meeting, the company agreed to adopt a code of conduct for its suppliers, which set standards for wages, benefits, working hours and employee safety and also to pay a penny a pound more for its Florida tomatoes.

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Kate Atkinson’s Transcription

October 9, 2019

For light reading, I turned to Kate Atkinson’s spy story, Transcription.  It’s not as amazing as her Life After Life, but it’s a good read.

The central character, Juliet Armstrong, is working for the BBC in 1950 when she encounters someone from her past—the time in 1940 when she was 18 years old and transcribing recordings from hidden microphone for Britain’s MI-5 counterintelligence service.

Armstrong is an interesting and complicated character.  Her 18-year-old self is innocent and naive.  We the worldly readers who’ve read spy fiction understand what she sees better than she does herself.  Yet she also is secretive, deceptive and disinclined to take things at face value—a good fit for the world of espionage.

She is part of a team eavesdrops on a British fascist cell whose leader, unknown to its members, is himself a British intelligence agent.  Her job is to transcribe recordings from the hidden microphones in the rooms where they meet.

Eventually she is promoted to being an agent herself, spying on a higher-level group of British fascists called the Right Club.

At first her targets seem like harmless cranks.  But she soon learns she is in a real war, with real casualties.

The Right Club makes contact with one Chester Venderkamp, an American embassy employee who has obtained copies of secret messages exchanged by cable between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

These cables show President Roosevelt has violated American neutrality by supporting the British and trying to involve the United States in the war.

Vanderkamp gives copies of the cables to the Right Club so they can be sent to Germany, and, with Juliet’s help, they all are caught red-handed.

The Right Club really did exist, and it was headed by a Russian emigre named Anna Wolkoff, just as in the novel.  The real club was in contact with an American embassy employee named Kent Tyler, who did have copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill cables.

Unlike the Vanderkamp character, Tyler Kent was a whistleblower, who wanted to inform the U.S. Senate and American press of what President Roosevelt was up to.  In his own mind, Kent was an American patriot.

I think present-day whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning are heroes.  I don’t think Tyler Kent was a hero.  Am I inconsistent?  Maybe.  Circumstances alter cases.  Civilization hung in the balance in 1940.  Not so in 2010.

Kent got off lightly because the U.S. government could not afford a public trial in which the facts would come out.  Back in 1940, the U.S. government had no legal provision for secret trials or secret evidence based on claims of national security.

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A black woman in ‘a world made for whiteness’

October 2, 2019

Austin Channing Brown was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement.  But she never reached the point where she was judged on the content of her character instead of the color of her skin.

She grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when overt racial prejudice had ceased to be socially acceptable.  She attended a good majority-white private Christian school and good majority-white colleges.  She had a career in majority-white religious non-profit institutions, all of which paid lip service to diversity and inclusiveness.

She now is a writer, lecturer, workshop coordinator and producer of a new TV program, The Next Question, which will air starting Oct. 6.  Few if any of these things would have been possible before the civil rights era.

But, in her memoir, I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, she wrote that she still feels like an outsider in a white world, and for good reason.

Her response is to immerse herself in what she calls Blackness (with a capital B) and take an oppositional stance toward what she sees as a monolithic entity called whiteness (all lower  case)

I have reservations about that.  The value of the book for me is its account of what even well-off black people have to put up, even when they’re with supposedly nice liberal white people.

Her parents named her ‘Austin Channing’ because they hoped that, when she sent in job applications, the potential employer would mistake her for a white man and invite her in for an interview.

Her parents were realistic.  Studies have shown that job applicants and loan applicants with characteristically black names get turned down at a higher rate than identical people with characteristically white upper-crust names.

And her own experience was that, in fact, interviewers were discombobulated when she came in the door and they saw who she was.

Another lesson from her dad: Never put her hands in her pockets or in her purse when in a store.  Because she was black, somebody might think she stole something.

When problems arose with white co-workers, Brown wrote, her mentors would invariably assume that she herself was the problem.  They would say they knew the co-workers and knew that they could never be racist.

There was a lot of racial prejudice, she wrote, underlying apparent concern and kindness.  Possibly she saw prejudice when it wasn’t there.

But that is the problem that black people face.  They never can know for sure whether a white person’s behavior toward them is a response to them as individuals or to their race.

Added to this is the problem of not fitting in, of not sharing the background, interests, tastes and assumptions common to her white co-workers.  This isn’t malice, it isn’t racial prejudice, but it is a real problem.

In my own case, I always felt a little uncomfortable when I was the only white person in the room.  I did not completely understand what was being said or done, and I was a little afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I am socially awkward generally, so somebody else might not have felt the way I did..  But I think I did get a glimpse of the stress that many black people must feel when they are in this kind of situation every day.

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More about the Brahmin left and merchant right

September 24, 2019

Democrats in the U.S., the Labor Party in Britain and left-wing parties in France no longer primarily represent the interests of wage earners, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist.

Instead they represent an educated elite, which he calls the Brahmin left, while the conservative parties represent a financial elite, which he calls the merchant right.

The educated elite are not an intellectual elite.  Having advanced college degrees don’t make you an intellectual any more than owning stocks and bonds makes you an entrepreneur.

I agree that there is less conflict of interest between the educated elite and the financial elite than there is between the two elites and the majority of wage-earners.

In a typical Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO, the board of directors and the institutional stockholders would be the merchant right.

Salaried middle management, the highly-paid consultants and most especially the human resources department would be the Brahmin left.  Their income would not come from financial assets, but from their rank in an organization, for which they would qualify by means of educational credentials.

The human resources department of an organization usually determines the organizational culture.  Typically HR people are big on diversity training and being LGBTQ allies because these things do not affect the wealth of stockholders or the power of top management.

American non-profit organizations such as universities and hospitals and also government agencies are adopting a  corporate model.

This means a well-paid top-heavy administrative overhead along with lower pay, higher demands and less security for those who do actual work.   Adjunct teachers, hospital nurses and letter carriers are treated just the same as factory workers.

Just to be clear, I’m in favor of sticking up for the rights of minorities, women and other groups that are targets of prejudice.  What’s wrong is using this as cover for lower wages, longer hours, expansion of contingent work and a fight against labor unions.

Such are my observations about American institutional life.  I don’t know how true these observations are true of institutions in Britain and France, or whether they are true at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.