Archive for the ‘The New Normal’ Category

Tales of a dystopian near-future

May 20, 2019

It’s often said that science fiction is not so much a forecast of the future as a mirror of concerns about the times in which it is written.  That is most certainly true of Cory Doctorow’s new book, RADICALIZED: Four tales of our present moment.

The title story is the most powerful and disturbing of the four.  It is about an on-line community of men who’ve been denied, or whose loved-ones have been denied, insurance coverage for treatable cancer, and who, one by one, decide to take revenge.

The first engages in a suicide bombing at a Blue Cross / Blue Shield office to avenge the death of his six-year-old daughter.  The second is a widower who kills a Senator who ran in a platform of health care for all, then voted against Medicare expansion.

The third is the elderly moderator of the forum, who has been subtly encouraging the bombings and killings.  He wheels his wheelchair into the middle of a health insurance conference at a Sheraton before setting off a home-made bomb that blows away himself and a sizable percentage of the guests.

Their objective is not just revenge, but health care reform.  They think that the power of fear may be enough to overcome the power of money.

Joe, the protagonist, joined the on-line forum when he was in despair about his wife not being able to get an “experimental” treatment that would cure her breast cancer.  She turns out to be a lucky one who has a spontaneous remission, but he stays on the forum, arguing against suicide and violence on private lines

He realizes that he is guilty of a crime simply by being aware that crimes are being planned and not reporting it to the police.  But he can’t bring himself to do this.

“Health care terrorism” spreads.  There’s more security at HMO and insurance company offices than at airports.  People who are denied insurance claims are put on terrorist watch lists.  But bombings and killings continue.  And Joe realizes it’s only a matter of time before Homeland Security catches up with him.

The conclusion is that a lot of people, including bystanders, have been killed, but Congress has enacted something called Americare.  Joe’s wife, visiting him in prison, remarks, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?

(more…)

Decline of the United States by the numbers

May 2, 2019

Historically, the American dream was that each generation would be better off that the generation that came before.  By many measurements, this is no longer true.  Click on any of the charts to enlarge them.

More American women are dying in childbirth.  This is not the mark of an advanced nation..

More Americans are dying of drug overdoses.  This is not a characteristic of a nation that is hopeful about the future.


More Americans are committing suicide.  Neither is this the characteristic of a hopeful nation.

Labor’s share of the American economy is falling.

U.S. student loan debt

Young people are told they cannot advance without college degrees, but they risk being crushed by student debt.

The gains in the economy are going to the top 1 percent of income earners.

(more…)

‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’

March 20, 2019

“It is worse, much worse than you think.”  So begins David Wallace-Wells’ THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: Life After Warming (2019), one of the most important books I’ve read in years.  

It is not proof that global warming is taking place, and it is not a plan to mitigate or reduce global warming.  It is simply a compilation of all the ways that climate change is disrupting the world we live in, and what may happen if nothing is done.

The best-case scenario is a future like the present, only more so—more storms, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, more tidal waves, more heat waves, but with the basic social order remaining intact.

The worst-case scenario, which can’t be ruled out, is that most or all of the earth’s surface becomes unfit for human habitation.

When I first heard about global warming, I wondered whether it was real.  I didn’t see how it was possible to measure average temperatures over the whole Earth to within a degree or so, or rise in average sea levels within inches.  Actually, I still don’t.

Still, I thought, the possibility of global warming provides one more reason for doing a lot of things that are desirable in themselves—reducing air and water pollution, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Over the years I came to the realization that since the greenhouse effect was scientific fact, and since greenhouse gasses were being emitted into the air at an ever-increasing rate, there was bound to be a crisis sooner or later.

That crisis is now upon us.

Fourteen of the world’s 20 largest cities have experienced water shortages or drought.  Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water.  Freshwater lakes from Lake Mead to Lake Chad are drying up.  The number of major floods have quadrupled since 1980 and doubled since 2004.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying because of the warming ocean.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap has changed wind patterns in China in ways that caused life-threatening smog in major cities.

The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major  hurricanes arriving in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

Then the record- breaking summer of 2018 made 2017 seem positively idyllic.  It brought an unheard-of global heat wave, with temperatures killing 108 in Los Angeles, 122 in Pakistan and 124 in Algeria.  

In the world’s oceans, six hurricanes and tropical storms appeared on the radars at once, including one, Typhoon Mangkhut, that hit the Philippines and then Hong Kong, killing nearly a hundred and wreaking a billion dollars in damages, and another, Hurricane Florence, which more than doubled the average annual rainfall in North Carolina, killing more than 50 and inflicting $17 billion worth of damage.  

There were wildfires in Sweden, all the way to the Arctic Circle, and across so much of the American West that half the continent was fighting through smoke, those fires ultimately burning close to 1.5 million acres.  Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100.  In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted.

The years to come will not be better.  One key fact about the greenhouse effect is that it is additive.  Nothing that is done to reduce greenhouse gasses in the future will remove the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, at least not in the lifetime of any living person or their future children.

Another is that annual greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.  Half of the emissions that occurred since the start of the industrial revolution took place in the last 30 years.

We can’t predict how successful the world’s nations will be in cutting back on fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gasses.  We can’t predict the exact impact of these gasses.

All we know for sure is that every addition to the world’s greenhouse gasses makes this worse.  And everything that is done to stop additional greenhouse gasses prevents things from being worse than they otherwise would be.

(more…)

Climate, migration and border militarization

March 13, 2019

Click to enlarge.

The two agencies of the U.S. government that take climate change most seriously are the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

They foresee droughts, floods and storms on a scale that will create global political instability and millions of climate refugees, mainly from countries already ravaged by war and poverty.  While other parts of the government dither and deny, they have spent billions since 2003 preparing for the coming emergency.

Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress.  Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses.

A journalist named Todd Miller did a good job of reporting on this in STORMING THE WALL: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security, published in 2017.

He attended a Defense, National Security and Climate Change conference in Washington, D.C., in 2015, attended by top military brass and government and corporate officials.  A NASA representative told how the Space Shuttle and F-35 fighter required chrome, columbium and titanium, which are sourced from South Africa, Congo and Zambia, all threatened with political instability due to climate change.

“If these stressing factor result in increased migration,” he said, “it will just increase the potential for instability and conflict,” which would affect the U.S. ability to obtain elements “critical to the alloys we need to support the system.”

It was at that meeting that Miller for the first time heard the expression, “military-environmental-industrial complex.”  Billions of dollars are being spent to, on the one hand, wean the U.S. military itself from dependence on fossil fuels and, on the other, maintain the political and economic status quo in the face of climate-driven upheaval.

He devoted several chapters of the book to migration from central America and Mexico into the southwest USA.  He showed that the border is not a line on the map separating the United States from Mexico.

The border area extends 100 miles into the interior of the United States, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acts like a military occupying force.  Miller noted that an order by President Obama against racial profiling specifically exempted the Department of Homeland Security.

It also extends down through Mexico into Central America, where there are a series of checkpoints, aided by U.S. military advisers and U.S. military equipment, designed to intercept migrants on their way.  There are fewer arrests nowadays at the international border, but this may not mean that fewer people are trying to cross the border.  It may just mean that more of them are intercepted before they get close.

The U.S. Coast Guard nowadays does more than guard the coasts.  After the 2010 earthquake, the Coast Guard patrolled the coast of Haiti, turning back anyone who tried to flee, and even set up a detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Migrants leave their home countries for many reasons—commonly poverty, war, tyranny or crime.  But, in the words of a Marine Corps general, climate change is a “threat multiplier.”  Events such as the 2015 drought in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua make all the underlying social problems worse.

The United States is not unique.  The new “smart border” between Turkey and Syria has a new tower every 1,000 feet, a three-language alarm system, and “automated firing zones” supported by hovering zeppelin drones, Miller wrote.

Experts say floods and a rising sea will cause millions to flee Bangladesh.  India has a 2,000-mile ‘iron wall” on its border and soldiers with orders to shoot to kill.  More than 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed between 2001 and 2011 while trying to cross the border.

(more…)

Storms, floods and climate apartheid

March 6, 2019

An extreme city, according to Ashley Dawson, is a city in which extremes of rich and poor render it unable to deal with extreme weather events.

In case of storm and flood, the rich people on the high ground almost always get priority over the poor people down by the waterfront—what Dawson calls climate apartheid.

And the people who live in rich places, such as Houston, who are mostly lighter-skinned, get priority over the poorer places, such as Port-au-Prince or San Juan, who are mostly darker-skinned.

Beyond this, Dawson wrote, the incentives of a market economy will almost always favor real estate development over public safety.

The best way to protect cities from high water is to pull back from the shoreline and create or expand wetlands to sponge up the high water.

But property developers, not to mention individual homeowners, want seawalls to protect their investments and enable them to recover their sunk costs.  Our economic system is based on continued growth.  There is no incentive system for pulling back.

Dawson said this is as true of New York City, where he lives, as it is of any city in the world.

This is no small thing.  Nearly half the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities.  Virtually all of them are on ocean coastlines or other bodies of water.  In the Global South, drought is driving increasing numbers of poor people off the land and into urban slums.

Dawson does not view global warming as a doom we can avoid if we try hard enough.  He sees it as an emergency that is already upon us, and that most of us are unprepared for.

He does not view it as merely a scientific and technical problem.  He says it is a social justice issue—a question of who drowns (usually the poor and dark-skinned) and who is saved (usually the rich and light-skinned)

Click to enlarge

When Superstorm Sandy was about to hit New York City in 2012, the city government told residents of the potential flood areas to evacuate.  Soon after subway service was shut down, which meant that those without cars were stranded in their neighborhoods.  Soon after high water left thousands without access to electricity and heat, or to essential supplies.

The first responders were volunteers, including veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who reconstituted themselves as Occupy Sandy.  They did whatever it took to provide food and water and rescue stranded elderly and disabled people on upper floors of apartment buildings.

The official disaster relief agencies showed up only a few days date and, according to Dawson, were happy to make use of Occupy Sandy and other volunteers, but reluctant to help or share information.  The reason, he said, is that the official organizations are engaged in a dog-eat-dog competition for funding and don’t want any of their rivals to gain an advantage.

Dawson wrote that when Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up at the flood-stricken Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, the only people he wanted to talk to were the business owners.  They were the ones who got the funds to rebuild.  The neighborhood and Occupy Sandy leaders were brushed aside.

(more…)

The fall and fall of U.S. tariff barriers

March 1, 2019

Click to enlarge. Hat to Barry Ritholtz

The United States, like almost all industrial countries, built up its infant industries behind protective tariff walls that shielded them from more efficient, because longer-established, competitors.

This historical graph shows what has happened since then.  Tariffs against foreign imports are down to a tiny fraction of what they were in the 1930s or 1940s.

President Trump deserves credit for forcing trade policy onto the national agenda.  Unlike his predecessors, he does not argue that more and more globalization is the answer  He is right that it is time for a change.

But trade wars aren’t an answer either

Rather the U.S. should do what successful exporting nations do, which is to build up their industries through a carefully targeted industrial policy.

(more…)

The widening target of ‘anti-racism’

February 14, 2019

Where once the targets of those concerned to fight injustice were “racism” and “sexism,” today the targets are “whiteness” and “masculinity.”  The underlying premise is plain: that there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women.

==attributed to Wesley Yang, author of The Souls of Yellow Folk

I think it is great that black people to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like whites in order to respect themselves.    I think it is great that women to take pride in themselves and not think they have to be like men in order to respect themselves.

I think discrimination against black people and against women are great evils, and I think it is great that these evils are being stigmatized and diminished.

I don’t see how racism and sexism are diminished telling white men they should be ashamed of themselves for being white and male.

My father taught me to live in a way that allows me to respect myself and to be willing to treat others with courtesy and respect, and that is what I believe in.

It is wrong to teach anyone that self-respect is impossible, or is possible only by adopting a certain creed or joining a certain group.

What does the US want all these bases for?

January 21, 2019

Click to enlarge

This map appeared in Smithsonian Magazine’s current issue, and represents a conservative estimate of the extent of U.S. military power.

It shows the U.S. military has a presence in 80 countries.  But Nick Turse, a reporter whose work is published in TomDispatch, was told that the total is really “more than 160” countries.

He said it’s impossible to get an exact number of the bases, the names of the countries in which they are located or even the number of countries in which they’re located.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there is no single individual in the Pentagon who actually has a complete list.

“Because we have been conservative in our estimates, U.S. efforts to combat terrorism abroad are likely more extensive than this map shows,” the Smithsonian writers stated.  “Even so, the vast reach evident here may prompt Americans to ask whether the war on terror has met its goals and whether they are worth the human and financial costs.”

The question is just what those goals are.  Is the worldwide network of bases intended to wage war on terror, or is the war on terror a means to the goal of creating a worldwide network of bases?  Do they make the U.S. more secure, or more likely to be drawn into foreign conflict?

While the U.S. is building bases worldwide at the expense of the American taxpayer, China is building infrastructure throughout Africa and Asia by means of loans to be paid back by the host country.

LINKS

This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism by Stephanie Savell and SW Infographics for Smithsonian Magazine.

Bases, Bases Everywhere….Except in the Pentagon’s Report by Nick Turse for TomDispatch.

Has the Government Legalized Secret Defense Spending? by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Why the U.S. shouldn’t build any more foreign bases by Akhilesh Pillalamarri for Defense News.

The younger generation’s new normal

December 3, 2018

No one under the age of 32 has ever experienced a cooler-than-average month on this planet.

LINK

The Earth has been warmer than average for 406 months in a row by Andrew Freedman for Axios.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

(more…)

2018: Year of the Democratic woman

November 25, 2018

American women did very well in the 2018 elections for themselves, and also for the Democratic Party.  The results aren’t all in, but here’s a preliminary tally.

At least 102 women were elected to the House of Representatives, including 89 Democrats and just 13 Republicans.  Among the 36 newcomers, only one was a Republican.

The makeup of the Senate stayed the same, with 17 Democratic and six Republican women.  There’s a runoff election in Mississippi on Tuesday, in which a white Republican woman is running against a black Democratic man, so there’s a possibility of one more Republican woman.

A record 43 women of color were elected to Congress.  Only one was a Republican.

The number of women governors increased from six (two Democrats, four Republicans) to nine (six Democrats, three Republicans).  The number of women serving in state legislatures will cross 2,000 for the first time.  I don’t know how many are Democrats, but I bet a lot of them are.

(more…)

Hispanics and Anglos get along just fine

November 12, 2018

Ron Unz, known as a leader of the campaign against bilingual education in California years ago, wrote a sensible article on his web site about Hispanic immigration into California and the United States as a campaign issue.

Hispanics are now about 60 40 percent of the population of California, so that state is an example of what is likely to happen as they become a larger fraction of the overall U.S. population.  Here are some of his main points: –

  • Anglos and Hispanics in California get along just fine.
  • Most American-born Californians have nothing against immigrants.  Sanctuary cities are popular.
  • Hispanics as a group as law-abiding.  The killing by an illegal immigrant used in recent Republican campaign ads was the result of a firearm accident.  There is no Hispanic immigrant crime wave.
  • Most immigrants, including Hispanic immigrants, want their children educated in the language of their new country.
  • Most immigration into the United States is legal immigration.  Increased border security will do little to reduce net immigration.
  • Immigration of unskilled workers does hurt the wages and job opportunities of existing citizens.  The way to deal with this is (1) a higher minimum wage and (2) lower numbers of legal immigrants.
  • Republicans in California condemned themselves to minority status by being anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.  The same thing could happen to Republicans in Texas and the nation as a whole.

HIs article is worth reading in its entirety.

LINK

Racial Politics in America and in California by Ron Unz for The Unz Review.

Airports, security culture and the new normal

November 1, 2018

Source: Philosophy Tube.  Hat tip to Alex Page.

At the dawning of the “war on terror”, the new airport security rules seemed shocking and unnatural.  Conservatives as well as liberals objected to them.  The “no-fly” lists—the idea that the government could ban people from traveling by air and not give a reason—seemed outrageous.

But I’ve ceased to think about this.   The video above—about the thoughts and experiences of a young Englishman flying from London to New York—reminds me of how abnormal our security state really is.

The other thing I get from the video is how the United States is spreading police-state thinking to other countries.  I was brought up to think of my country as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and I think that, in some ways and to some extent, it was.

But nowadays cruel and ruthless dictators can point to the U.S. example to justify torture, warrantless arrests, extrajudicial killings and military intervention.

The question asked by the video is, “When will security ever go back to normal?”  The present security culture has been in existence for 15 years.  It now seems normal to many of us, maybe most of us.   Until and unless we stop thinking of it as normal, it won’t change.

A growing China reboots totalitarianism

October 22, 2018

Source: Dissident.

My great fear during the Cold War was that the totalitarian USSR would outlast the democratic USA.  I was afraid that a dictatorship would be able to take a longer view than a democracy, and would be better able to prioritize military and diplomatic power.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell, for one, scoffed at these fears.  He said that a democracy would always be able to outlast a dictatorship because dictators insulate themselves from bad news, while, in a democracy, contested elections and a free press provide a reality check.  The fall of Communism in Europe in 1989-1991 appeared to prove him right.

Now the Chinese government has created a new and more effective totalitarianism.  It uses social media and other new techniques to control the population more effectively than Mao ever dreamed of—while keeping the old Communist police state as backup.

When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Western leaders hoped that as China made economic progress, it would become more liberal and democratic.

China has made enormous economic progress.  Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been raised from poverty.  China is a major manufacturing nation.

Economic historian Adam Tooze said Chinese economic expansion was the main force pulling the world out of recession after 2008 and today contributes as much to world economic growth as the USA and Europe put together.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, aka the New Silk Road, involves investing more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years to create a railroad, highway, pipeline and electrical grid extending over the whole of the interior of Eurasia, creating an integrated economy centering on China.

But if there was a possibility that this would make China more liberal and democratic, President Xi Jinping has moved to head it off.  Since 2013, China has been cracking down not only on corruption, but also on human rights lawyers, religious believers and critics o the government.

Xi Jinping has abolished the term limits that bound his predecessors and encouraged a Mao-style cult of personality.  There are even Institutes for the Study of Xi Jinping Thought.

Social media in China are monitored, and the Chinese government is in the process of implementing a scheme by which every Chinese citizen will be given a social credit score, based on an algorithm that takes into account credit history and good citizenship, but also opinions and associations, which can determine access to education, health care, credit and even public transportation.  This is powerful, because there is no individual against whom you can protest or to whom you can appeal.

In Xinjiang, members of the native Muslim Uighur population can be sent to Mao-style reeducation camps for the least little thing, even wearing a beard.  Surveillance cameras using facial recognition technology are everywhere.

China’s leaders have found a way to harness capitalism to the service of a capitalist government—much as Lenin tried to do with his New Economic Policy in the 1920s, allowing limited private business but maintaining ultimate control.  Maybe the USSR would have become like today’s China if not for Stalin’s forced collectivization drives.

There is a possibility that much of the rest of the world may come to regard China as a better example to follow than the United States.  Unless things change, the Chinese totalitarian model may prevail not through subversion or military force, but by force of successful example and as a price of doing business with China.

(more…)

Pro-family vs. anti-family conservatives

October 18, 2018

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher put up an interesting post this morning quoting an evangelical Christian man who says he and his wife can’t afford to have children because of corporate business practices and neoliberal economic policies supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

He and his wife are both employed in STEM fields and earn six-figure incomes, but their employers constantly remind them that they can be replaced at any time by immigrants from India willing to work at one-third their salaries.  Losing a job would mean losing health insurance, which might mean bankruptcy.

A cousin actually went bankrupt because his newborn had a rare disease, and his insurance company decided that the medical staff on duty that day were not in its network, even though the hospital itself was in-network.  Then there is the cost of education, which can bankrupt even an affluent family.

The most interesting part was his contrast of European and American conservatives.

Europe’s conservatives actually are pro-family there and support pro-natalist policies. The US media as usual is embarrassingly confused about populists like Matteo Salvini, Victor Orban, the AfD in Germany, the NF in France, Vox in Spain, the Sweden Democrats and the conservatives in Denmark, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands.

These aren’t racists like the media claims, in fact quite the opposite, they are not the ones calling for invasion of foreign countries, but rather for the preservation of their own native European Christian cultures, Christian values and distinctive identities within their ancient homelands. And above all for supporting the family unit. [snip].

Europe’s populist conservatives all favor universal healthcare, low-cost childcare, free or low-cost tuition for colleges, 6 weeks of vacation (great for bonding with the family) and protection of the local labor market and wages. When I worked in Europe all Americans and other foreigners (including many tech workers from India) were paid the same or higher wages than locals, and if any employer tried to undermine the local labor market and wages, he’d be greeted with a prison term.

Source: Rod Dreher | The American Conservative

If somebody like that doesn’t think he can afford to live what used to be considered a normal life, what about the rest of us?

I’m reminded of Chris Arnade and his contrast of the “front-row kids” and “back-row kids”—the ones who get ahead because they value education, adaptability and individual success most, and the ones who are left behind because they value family, tradition and community more.

This is a good example of the coming together of the cultural conservative critique and economic radical critique of our current political economy.

(more…)

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and liquid modernity

October 14, 2018

Patrisse Khan-Cullors

When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is an eloquent and just outcry against injustice.  It also reflects a world and a way of thinking that I’m not comfortable with.

A few months ago I learned a new phrase—”liquid modernity.”  The idea is that we no longer live in a world of fixed structures—political, economic, social and moral—that we can either cling to or fight against.  Everything is fluid and ever-changing, and individuals have to continually reinvent themselves and start anew.

I can best explain what I mean by comparing and contrasting Patrisse Cullors today and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.

I make the comparison not to rank them or nor to denigrate Cullors.  She has overcome difficulties I can barely imagine and accomplished orders of magnitude more in 30-some years I have in 80-some.  The comparison is to show how thinking about justice and society has changed in 50 years.

Black Lives Matter and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are not opposites.  They both engaged in non-violent protest in order to bring about social justice.  Although most Americans now venerate Dr. King, it is through a golden haze of amnesia that makes us forget he and his movement were as controversial and as hated in their day as Black Lives Matter is today.

The SCLC was tightly organized and highly disciplined.  Dr. King was highly protective of its image.  People who wanted to participate in SCLC protests had to submit to training in the discipline of non-violence and provide assurance that they would not do anything to harm the cause.

Although Dr. King had a low opinion of the average white American’s sense of justice, he was concerned about white public opinion and sought out white allies, including journalists, labor leaders and Christian and Jewish clergy.

Which is not to say he was subservient to white opinion.  His opposition to the Vietnam War, while justified in the light of history, cost him the support of President Johnson and many white allies.

Black Lives Matter is loosely organized.  In its early days, it consisted of people following a meme on Twitter and Facebook, and there was confusion as to who had a right to speak for Black Lives Matter and who didn’t.   It’s now a more formal organization with authorized chapters.  I’m not familiar with its inner structure, but my impression is that it still is not highly centralized.

This has advantages, of course.  Individuals and local chapters are able to act on their own initiative without getting permission from a central governing body.

Black Lives Matter does not rely on the mainstream press to get the word out.  Communication is by means of social media, which did not exist in Dr. King’s time.

Nor do Black Lives Matter leaders frame their statements or their actions with an eye to what white people think of them.   Its emphasis is on solidarity among black people, whether male or female, native-born or immigrant, straight or LGBTQ, and unity in pressing their case.

(more…)

Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

May 23, 2018

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]

∞∞∞

Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

(more…)

Robots will not (necessarily) replace us

November 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual abuse more common than I like to admit

November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Are we still getting smarter? Maybe not

October 3, 2017

Average I.Q. test scores rose decade by decade in most countries throughout the 20th century.   But now, in a few countries, the trend may be going into reverse.

By the standards of today, the average person in the late 19th century would be been on the verge of mental retardation.  By the standards of that era, the average person of today is on the verge of being highly gifted.

This is called the “Flynn effect,” for James R. Flynn, who discovered it.    He doesn’t believe that people today are biologically superior to people of an earlier era, even though they are better nourished and get better medical care.

He believes it is because people today are educated to reason abstractly and hypothetically, which is what I.Q. tests measure.   People in the earlier era weren’t stupid; they just focused on particular things and personal experience.

Higher I.Q., in other words, fits you to function in a civilization based on abstract reasoning.

Now there is some evidence of a “reverse Flynn effect”—I.Q. leveling off or declining in some countries.   This is based on tests of large numbers of British school children age 11-12 and 13-14 in selected years, of military conscripts in Denmark, Norway and Finland, of students in Estonia, of adults in France and the Netherlands.

It is hard for me to think of any reason why this would be so in those countries that would not apply in greater measure to the United States.

(more…)

The new normal 2017

August 2, 2017

Click to enlarge.   Source: Tom Tomorrow.

On the other hand, read What Trump Is Quietly Accomplishing by David A. Graham for The Atlantic.

Steven Pinker on moral fiction

July 9, 2017

Double click to enlarge.

Source: New York Times.

Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia

June 5, 2017

As a boy and well into adulthood, I thought of heroin addiction as a product and problem of big city slums—a world completely alien to me.

My old friend Steve called my attention to a harrowing article in The New Yorker about heroin addiction in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, just across the river from western Maryland where the two of us grew up.

The Eastern Panhandle as I remember it

I am shocked, although I know I shouldn’t be, that heroin addiction could capture so many people with the same small-town white Protestant background as me.  But in fact rates of drug addiction are higher among non-Hispanic white people than among Hispanic or black people.

Like much of Appalachia, as well as the Rustbelt along the Great Lakes, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., lost its main manufacturing employer, the Interwoven textile mill, and nothing has ever taken its place.

Citizens of Martinsburg today are thinking of converting part of the old Interwoven plant into a drug rehabilitation center.

Margaret Talbot, the author of the New Yorker article, gives harrowing descriptions of how drug addition has become normalized.  She opens with a description of a mother and father suffering a drug overdose while attending a Little League game.

She reported on how marketing of painkillers such as Oxycontin enabled West Virginians to self-medicate for physical and psychic pain, and then how heroin was introduced as a cheaper substitute.  She went on to write:

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin.

Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose.

I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs.

“In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.”

There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.”

He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

Source: The New Yorker

As I see it, large numbers of Americans think that what gives meaning to life is economic success, or at least being able to pay your way and be a breadwinner for others.  When that meaning is no longer available, they feel worthless and fall into despair.

(more…)

Donald Trump, a walking conflict of interest

May 3, 2017

I doubt if Donald Trump could get through a single day, certainly not a single week, without being involved in a conflict of interest.

The Atlantic magazine has drawn up a list of 39 issues (and counting) in which decisions by President Trump will affect the profitability of the Trump Organization.

Maybe the biggest one is the federal investigation of the Deutsche Bank, which holds $300 million in IOUs from the Trump Organization.

U.S. banks wouldn’t give Trump credit after he defaulted on debt when his Atlantic City casinos declared bankruptcy, so he turned to the Deutsche Bank, which is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of  laundering money for Russian mobsters.  Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said he will continue this investigation impartially.  We’ll see,

The Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service have been conducting investigations as to whether the Trump Organization violated labor law and tax law.   Will these investigations continue?  We’ll see.

The Trump Organization’s lease agreement with the General Services Administration for the Trump International Hotel property contains a provision that no elected official will be part of the lease.  But the GSA has ruled this doesn’t apply to Trump because he’s no longer officially head of the business.  An impartial decision?  Maybe.

Trump’s business is involved in business deals with politicians and close relatives of politicians in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Dubai and Argentina.  Will Trump, if necessary, make decisions that threaten those relationships?  We’ll see.

And then there are daughter Ivanka’s women’s fashion business and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family real estate businesses.

Never even mind the penny-ante stuff—Donald Trump charging the Secret Service for use of Trump facilities while they guard him and his families.

Any of these conflict would be highly controversial as a stand-alone issue.  The problem is that there are so many issues it is impossible to remember any one of them.

The problem is that there is hardly any decision that Trump or his appointees can make—whether in foreign policy, tax policy, labor policy, environmental policy or consumer protection—that will not in some way affect the profitability of the Trump businesses.

(more…)

Barack Obama’s $400,000 speaking fee

May 3, 2017

There are two ways of looking at the $400,000 speaking fee that ex-President Barack Obama will receive from the Wall Street brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald for speaking at a health care investment conference.

One is that a public official who governed in the interests of Wall Street and the health insurance industry is receiving a big bag of money from a Wall Street firm with major investments in the health insurance industry.

The other is that Obama is merely doing what all but one of the ex-Presidents from Gerald Ford onward have done, which is to use speaking fees cash in on his celebrity status.

Hillary and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees were a special case because Hillary Clinton was a future Presidential candidate.   Hillary’s $675,000 in Goldman Sachs speaking fees could be interpreted as payments not only for services rendered, but for services anticipated.   That suspicion was reinforced by Clinton’s refusal to release the texts of her talks.

I imagine that Barack Obama will have sense enough to watch his words enough to be able to release the text of his Cantor Fitzgerald talk without embarrassment.

Obama is not doing anything unusual.  All but one of the Presidents from Gerald Ford through George W. Bush cashed in with big speaking fees after they left office.

This is the new normal.  In this neoliberal age, an ex-President such as Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter who refused to monetize the office of the Presidency would seem quaint and strange.

(more…)