Universal Translator

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Update: The 1%’s European Coup

As a follow up to my earlier post about the 1%’s European Coup, my attention was called to Noah Millman’s “In the Long Run, We’re All German” over at The American Scene.  (h/t Kevin Drum)

Millman approvingly cites Ryan Avent for the proposition that the European Central Bank actually engineered the crisis now unfolding in the Eurozone by raising benchmark interest rates to collapse demand, thereby driving economies on the threshold – like Italy’s – into insolvency.   He then adds:

Some might well argue that responsibility sits with the debtors – more specifically, creditors might argue that.  In other words:  Germany might argue that.  Central banks are generally biased in favor of creditors; the ECB was specifically organized to be biased in favor of Germany.  (That was the price for getting Germany to agree to give up the Deutschemark in the first place.)  One way of looking at the sequence of events is to say that the ECB was willing to permit contagion in order to wring out inflation.  I think a better way of looking at it is to say that the ECB was willing to threaten Italy with insolvency in order to give Germany more formal control over Italy’s finances.

That’s incredibly hard-ball politics, but if you are not accountable to anybody (which the ECB, basically, is not) then you can play really, really hard-ball politics.

(emphasis in the original)

Millman later states in the comments that accompany his post that he views all of this as more of a “north-south European conflict” rather than a “class conflict within Germany,” i.e., not as a matter of the German 1% grabbing power at the expense of the German 99%.  But while I agree with Millman’s analysis, I think that ultimate conclusion is incorrect. 

As Millman says, central banks work for creditors, the ECB works for Germany, and the German banking system is the Eurozone’s largest creditor.  In other words, the ECB is fairly well working for the German banking system.  And the German banking system – like all modern financial systems – basically works for the 1% even if (as Millman seems to want to indicate in his comments) not all German bankers are themselves members of the 1%.

Giving control over Italy’s internal policies to the German banking system only means that the German banking system will have greater power to engineer Italy’s policies for the benefit of the 1% for whom it works.  If Millman is correct that the ECB actually “engineered” the Eurozone crisis to accomplish this, then what we are looking at is a de facto coup of a representative democracy by the global monied elite not by the exercise of physical force, but by the control of financial power.

The Driving Dream of MORE

Too often we assume that Homo Economicus is truly just motivated by the money, or more ridiculously the financial interests of the shareholders of the companies they run.  The truth is Our Galtian Overlords are frequently just assholes because they are assholes, not because being assholes will actually make them any richer.

That right there.  What Atrios said.  

Digby wrote something the other day quoting Joseph Stiglitz’s assertion that the ultimate fate of the 1% “is bound up with how the other 99% live.”  Digby then added that “a stable society with a thriving middle class is more necessary to [the 1%’s] survival than a quick buck to add to their already depraved level of wealth . . . .”

With which Steve M. quibbled:

Maybe [these statements] are true in the very, very long run, but I can’t live on a planet in which North Korea’s regime has endured for decades, thriving as its population starves, and believe that the overdogs in our society can’t keep bleeding us relatively slowly for as long as we’re willing to put up with it.  They don’t need for us to thrive – they’ll sell to a Chinese or Indian or Brazilian middle class if ours isn’t thriving.  Or they’ll sell to one another.  They don’t need for us to thrive any more than they’ve ever needed a thriving middle class in any of the third world countries where they’ve long put their factories.

But I think Steve M. gets it wrong here, because I think Steve misapprehends the issue.

Digby and Stiglitz might have been discussing the division between the 99% and the 1% that obtains here in the United States, but that division is being replicated around the world and so their argument applies on a global scale.

It is fine to blithely suggest that Our Galtian Overlords will sell to a Chinese or an Indian middle class if the US middle class isn’t flourishing, but neither the Chinese nor the Indian middle class are flourishing either.  Sure, you can point to the high growth rate of the middle class in either country, but that is only because when one’s starting point is essentially zero any uptick at all implies, mathematically speaking, a growth rate of infinity.  (I exaggerate, obviously, but I think you take my point.)

The reason we have a “global savings glut” (Bernanke, Krugman, Roubini), or - stated another way - a “dearth of economic investment opportunity” (Stiglitz), or - stated another way - an “overaccumulation of capital” (Marx) is because Our Galtian Overlords in pretty much every country are appropriating for themselves alone almost all the profit from their growing economies and not recycling that profit back into the system in the form of higher wages for everybody else.

By doing so, they are at once accumulating capital for themselves and destroying any market in which they might later deploy that capital.  It’s not that they are eating their seed corn so much as they are storing that seed corn away until it rots from disuse.

This is also why Steve M.’s point about the 1% never having needed a thriving middle class in “any of the third world countries where they’ve long put their factories” is misplaced.  The cruel genius behind the idea of employing third-world workers at slave wages to manufacture goods for export is that those goods, by definition, are intended to be sold elsewhere; by keeping their labor markets and their consumer markets absolutely separate, manufacturers could impoverish the former without shrinking the latter.  But the genius of this little stratagem evaporates once one attempts to replicate it on a global scale.  When the entire world’s labor supply is impoverished, the entire world’s consumer market is as well.

And as for the idea that the world’s 1% might simply sell to one another if they can no longer sell to the 99%?  Well, they certainly intend to try doing that; in fact, that seems to be the fundamental idea underlying CitiGroup’s infamous “plutonomy memo” from 2005.   But to again quote Kunkel: “this substitution was never likely, for as Keynes observed, ‘when our income increases our consumption increases also, but not by so much.’”  Simply stated, not even the greedy gobs of the Galtian Overlords can swallow an entire world’s production, over and over and over again.

Which leaves us, finally, with the suggestion that perhaps Our Galtian Overlords will learn to be content with living the way Kim Jung-il does in North Korea:  luxuriously, wanting for nothing, content to pile up riches while the rest of the world beggars itself for their comfort.  To which I respond . . . maybe.  Maybe they could learn to live this way, but I doubt it.

It is one thing to beggar a nation, it is quite another to beggar the world.  Kim Jung-il might not be vexed by the idle wealth he is amassing at the expense of North Korea but remember . . . at the end of the day it’s still only North Korea.  How much wealth can he possibly be amassing over there?  After Kim shoots a few new action-adventure Godzilla blockbuster movies and springs for another giant waterslide, how much can he really have left over with which to play the role of Scrooge McDuck?

But The World is . . . The World. 

Grab up all of The World’s resources and you can’t just let that stuff sit around doing nothing.  You’ve got to find some use for it . . . exactly the same way campus police at UC-Davis or the cops in New York just needed to find a use for all that cool new military equipment that until recently had been just lying around.  “Money – excess capital – needs to be put to work; it needs to earn profit, or else it is just useless.”  As useless as an unopened can of military grade pepper spray.

Besides, at the end of the day anyone who has climbed to or spent their life in the coveted position of a Galtian Overlord, anyone as sociopathic as the Koch Brothers who – not content to possess a combined wealth of $50 Billion -- still feel the need to purchase governors, destroy workers’ rights, eliminate all business regulation, and disenfranchise voters merely to suck up even more money. . . anyone like that is never going to be content just to kick back and enjoy their unimaginable wealth.

Because the truth is that people so batshit, Koch brothers-level insane are just a little more imaginative than you or I could ever even think of being.  And what they tend to imagine is what it would be like to have more.  And not even more money, not necessarily.  Just . . . more.  More power, more control, more authority, more stuff, more, more, more and always, always, More Than Anybody Else.

More is what drives them.  Because, in the end, it really isn’t the money.  In the end it simply is that such people are – to borrow Atrios’s term – assholes.

* * *

So, yeah . . . Stiglitz gets it right when he says that the well-being of the 1% depends on them not destroying the very markets they need in order to keep realizing their ever-present dream of More.  

Nevertheless, the 1% persists in destroying those markets anyway because these people are perfect singularities of covetousness, reflexively grubbing up anything that crosses their greed field's event horizon.  It remains true that their very well-being depends to a large extent on the well-being of all the rest of us but, as Digby says, “they are too thick” to realize that simple fact.

Digby wins the round on points.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Return of the Son of Marx from Planet X

Following up on my post yesterday about Marxian crisis theory, that little bit about the GOD (“Grow or Die”) Principle and credit was only part of a larger discussion in Kunkel’s article about how Marxian crisis theory envisions economic crises arising naturally out of capitalism.

Below the fold I am going to explain my understanding of what it is Kunkel is saying about how such crises arise, but first I want to present a small excerpt from a recent Bloomberg News op-ed by James Livingston.  Livingston is an historian teaching at Rutgers University and he makes the argument that even though economic austerity is what all the cool kidz are smoking right now, it is in fact very bad for your economic health.

I was directed to the article via Digby yesterday, shortly after posting that thing on Marx, GOD and credit, and I was struck by this statement:

In theory, the Great Depression was a financial meltdown first caused, and then cured, by central bankers.  In fact, the underlying cause of this disaster wasn’t a short-term credit contraction engineered by bankers.  The underlying cause of the Great Depression was a fundamental shift of income shares away from wages and consumption to corporate profits, which produced a tidal wave of surplus capital that couldn’t be profitably invested in goods production – and wasn’t invested in goods production.   (emphasis added)

At no place in his op-ed does Livingston mention Marx, and there is nothing to indicate that he has any knowledge of Marxian crisis theory.  However, his description of what gave rise to the Great Depression – from the point of view of an historian – mirrors exactly the kind of crisis the theory predicts capitalism will inevitably produce.  It also sounds very similar to what we are going through right now.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas . . .

. . . .  Ev’rywhere you go;
Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Toys in ev’ry store
But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be
On your own front door.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev’rywhere you go;
There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well,
The sturdy kind that doesn’t mind the snow.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas;
Soon the bells will start,
And the thing that will make them ring, is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart.

            --Lyrics by Meredith Willson

Photo of woman on sidewalk during Black Friday’s holiday shopping extravaganza by Michael Nagle/Getty Images.  (h/t Matt Yglesias)

Electric Cars and Fritz Leiber

About a week ago Brad Plumer, working over at Ezra Klein's Wonkblog, wrote a brief post about America’s failure thus far to purchase a lot of electric cars.  I found the post a bit strange because Plumer identified two real problems that today’s electric cars and hybrids have – (i) they are fairly expensive, and (ii) fully electric cars have only a limited range (about 65 miles) before they need to be recharged – but seemed determined to ignore both these real concerns.  Instead, he ascribed our reluctance to purchase small, expensive cars that cannot travel very far to a quirk in American “psychology.”  Indeed, the title of his post asked and then answered its own question:  “What’s wrong with the electric car?  Psychology, perhaps.”

Maybe he just wanted a chance to work in a particular quote from an executive who told him that, “Our research shows that people want to feel like they can get into their car and drive across the country at if [sic] they have to.  It might sound silly, but it’s real.”

(No, I don’t know why that sounds silly.  I have frequently driven across state lines in my car, and if I were to purchase a new car I’m pretty sure I’d want that one also to be able to drive me as far as I wanted to go.  At the very least it should get me to my sister’s house for Christmas, and she lives 200 miles away.)

But the reason I wanted to discuss Plumer’s post is because he also mentions Better Place, an American-Israeli venture company that is attempting to develop what I consider to be the only viable infrastructure needed to support an electric car economy:  a nationwide network of battery-switching stations.  Better Place is currently installing fully automatic battery-switching networks in Denmark and Israel, comprised of stations that supposedly can swap out a depleted car battery for a fully charged one in less than five minutes – easily comparable to the time one spends filling the tank at a conventional service station.

I like this idea for a couple of reasons.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Marx: GOD and Credit

 At the moment, Marxism seems better prepared to interpret the world than to change it.

                                    --Benjamin Kunkel

That quote is from the closing sentences of an article in the February 2011 London Review of Books.  The article itself – “How Much is Too Much? – ostensibly reviews David Harvey’s effort in his 2010 work The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism [no, I don’t know why there is a colon in that title] to consider the world’s current economic situation through the lens of Marxian crisis theory.  However, most of its length is devoted to explaining what “Marxian crisis theory” actually is and to describing the gloss that Harvey put on this theory in his earlier work from the 1980s, The Limits to Capital.

I came across the LRB article about a month ago, read it, was highly intrigued by it, but realized that I didn’t actually understand it.  So I printed it out, put it aside, and waited until this weekend to re-read it.  I think I have a better handle on it now, but reading the thing does underscore how woefully little I know about Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism.  It doesn’t help – judging solely from Kunkel’s review and some of the passages he quotes – that the critique does not seem to be easily penetrable. 

In any event, while there is a great deal in the article to pique one’s interest, I cannot claim to really be on any kind of sure footing when I discuss (as I do below) some of the ideas I found particularly interesting.  I suspect that what I really need is a very dumbed-down introduction to this stuff, something like Marxian Economic Theory for Dummies.  (I looked for it; it doesn’t seem to be in print.)

Anyway . . . here goes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Following Up on Greece

I cross-posted yesterday's The 1%'s European Coup over at DailyKos, where it generated quite a bit of commentary.  In reading some of those comments this morning, I came across a number that took issue with my characterization of exactly what happened to Greece.  I addressed these points in a lengthy comment of my own, but it occurred to me to cross-post that additional argument/data here as well.

I originally had left out this information because I thought yesterday's post was getting long enough as it is, but I do think that this additional data supports my contention that Greece's debt problems arose because its wealthiest citizens simply refused to pay their taxes.  The comment I posted up over at DailyKos and the additional supporting information are both below the fold.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The 1%’s European Coup

The last thing the world needs at a time like this is democracy.  That is what got us into this mess in the first place.  People wanting stuff, and voting for people who said they’d give ‘em that stuff, without showing they’re working. 

            --Comedian Andy Zaltzman to John Oliver
            The Bugle, Ep. 173a

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Harold Meyerson wrote about “The Growing Tension Between Capitalism and Democracy.”  Meyerson pointed out that

Over the past year . . . capitalism has fairly rolled over democracy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Europe, where financial institutions and large investors have gone to war under the banner of austerity, and governments of nations with not-very-productive or overextended economies have found that they could not satisfy those demands and still cling to power. The elected governments of Greece and Italy have been deposed; financial technocrats are now at the helm of both nations. . . .  It’s as though the markets throughout Europe have had enough with this democratic sovereignty nonsense.  (emphasis added)

Essentially, Meyerson is arguing that the entwined financial system of the Eurozone now gives “financial technocrats” more power to dictate any particular Eurozone country’s fiscal policies than that country’s own citizens have. 

But as much as Meyerson’s description should be enough already to give one pause, I think framing the situation in this way actually understates the significance of what we are witnessing:  a European political and economic coup by the global 1%.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Evacuation Day, Everybody!

And speaking of quirks in American history that get forgotten or swept under the rug, if you've not already seen Sarah Vowell's appearance on The Daily Show last week in which she explains the history of "Evacuation Day" -- which was once a huge American holiday and now, thanks to "Abraham Fucking Lincoln" is almost entirely forgotten -- you should check it out.

I attempted to embed the video, but either blogger does not support the type of embedding Comedy Central makes possible or I am just too clueless to figure out how to get it to work.  But you can see the thing by clicking here.  (You'll have to sit through a ten second ad for a video game; sorry.)

Go, learn, enjoy.

Happy Black Friday, Everybody!

If you are at all like me you already know that actual history is about 1,000 times more interesting that the bland, pre-digested stuff they serve up as "history" when you are a kid in the United States.  I couldn't stand studying American history when I was in school because it was just. so. god. damned. boring.

Decades later I discovered Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States:  1492 to the Present.  Holy crap!  Now this was what I was looking for:  a story rife with conflict, winners and losers, fights between vested interests, manifest cruelty and injustice and - yes - occasional victories for the progressive forces of good.  This was a history I could believe in, one that explained why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way and it was filled with characters whom I could recognize as people, flawed and self-serving and occasionally bright and brilliant.  These Real Life beings bore no resemblance to, for example, the pure and perfect "Founders" that I was told in school I should revere, but they were better:  they were people I could believe in.

Ever since, I've delighted in discovering new, quirky details about American history that give the lie to the bland "official" record of our continual, uninterrupted progress.

Today, Kevin Drum has an interesting post up about the history of Black Friday.  I always had swallowed the official story that the day takes its name from the fact that for many retailers the holiday shopping season is what ensures their profitability for the year.  (Although, if you think about it, this does seem rather unlikely.  Seriously, retailers operate at a loss 11 months out of the year and only make a buck during the last four weeks?  I marvel at my own credulousness.)

Anyway, click on the link to read Drum's article in its entirety, but here is the gist.  "Black Friday" apparently started as a pejorative term coined by department store clerks in the Philadelphia area about 50 - 60 years ago to describe the "hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents" that would descend upon the stores following Thanksgiving.  Later it seems to have been adopted by the Philadelphia police to describe the terrible conditions and traffic jams occasioned by the Army-Navy football game played  in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving.  

And as late as 1985, "Black Friday" apparently wasn't known at all outside of Philadelphia; its now national use seems to have been the creation "sometime in the 80s of an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America's shopkeepers."  You'd think -- having been alive back then -- I would have remembered that prior to the mid-80s nobody ever used the term, but like everybody else I apparently am inclined to accept at face value whatever the TeeVee wishes to report.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!

I'm sure a lot of you remember the classic WKRP in Cincinnati turkey drop episode.  In honor of this day, here it is again, edited down to a clean 33 seconds:

I hope everyone enjoys National Turkey Day!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving: Truly the Most American of Holidays

After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush infamously urged Americans to respond by going to Disney World, keep shopping, and not to pay too much attention to his plans to plunge us into an unnecessary and ill-founded war with Iraq.  He’s gotten a lot of flack for that over the years, but – as the national holiday we celebrate today makes clear – America has always been a warlike and commercial nation, and slaughter and shopping have been our traditional pastimes.

One of my favorite brief sketches of the evolution of Thanksgiving, strictly for its contrariness, can be found here:

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue.
In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries.  This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving" to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the 2nd Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions.
(emphasis added)
So, yeah . . . except for the very first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans and the Wampanoag in 1621, the holiday itself actually involved “giving thanks” for having slaughtered villages of Native Americans.  This is how Thanksgiving evolved from a commemoration of our “warlike” nature.

And what about the commemoration of our “commercial” nature?  Well, that has to do with the day on which we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Remember . . . by tradition the various states celebrated “thanksgiving” on different days.  It wasn’t until 1863 when – by the proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln – it was determined that Thanksgiving would be celebrated uniformly and as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November.

And that worked out okay until November 1939, which contained five Thursdays – the last of which fell on November 30th.  The problem with this was that – back then, at least – Americans didn’t begin their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving.  But in 1939 the country still hadn’t recovered from FDR’s ill-advised attempt to rein in government spending two years before  and we still were caught up in the aftereffects of the Depression. 

So Roosevelt issued a new proclamation, moving Thanksgiving up by one week in order to get a bigger economic boost from an additional week’s worth of Christmas shopping.  However, fully 16 states refused to accept the change and so for the next two years the different states celebrated “Thanksgiving” on different days.  Eventually, in 1941 the House of Representatives declared Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November, but the Senate reminded the House that shopping was on the line and amended the resolution to establish Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.  This amended resolution was finally signed into law by FDR on December 26, 1941.

And so there you have it:  while most people think Black Friday – traditionally, the beginning of our holiday shopping -- depends on when Thanksgiving is, the truth is Thanksgiving depends on when we want to start our shopping.  An entire national holiday established solely because we want to make sure we get to spend enough time at the mall.

Truly, Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. 

First Amendment Freedoms Are NOT Subject to Budget Constraints

There is a truly pernicious, evil idea that nearly everybody in the United States reflexively parrots and that at first glance looks like it might make sense but really, really doesn’t:  that the United States of America should be run like a business.

“We need to put a businessman in the White House!”  (Wait . . . George W. Bush was “the MBA President,” remember?  How about we don’t do that again.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Matt Taibbi on Occupy Davis

I swear, I will stop writing about this whole Liberty/Freedom distinction.  For one thing, it is tiresome to hear yourself keep spouting off about the same "revelation."  For another, it isn't much of a revelation.

Still . . . Matt Taibbi has a great piece up over at his blog, and - again - he seems to be dealing with the same kind of thoughts.  As always, please do click over and read Matt's take on the UC-Davis pepper spraying of unarmed, non-violent, peaceful protesters.

Here's a taste:
What happened at UC Davis was the inevitable result of our failure to make sure our government stayed in the business of defending our principles. When we stopped insisting on that relationship with our government, they became something separate from us.
And we are stuck now with this fundamental conflict, whereby most of us are insisting that the law should apply equally to everyone, while the people running this country for years now have been operating according to the completely opposite principle that different people have different rights, and who deserves what protections is a completely subjective matter, determined by those in power, on a case-by-case basis.
Not to belabor the point, but the person who commits fraud to obtain food stamps goes to jail, while the banker who commits fraud for a million-dollar bonus does not. Or if you accept aid in the form of Section-8 housing, the state may insist on its right to conduct warrantless "compliance check" searches of your home at any time – but if you take billions in bailout aid, you do not even have to open your books to the taxpayer who is the de facto owner of your company.
The state wants to retain the power to make these subjective decisions, because being allowed to selectively enforce the law effectively means they have despotic power. And who wants to lose that?
The UC Davis incident crystallized all of this in one horrifying image. Anyone who commits violence against a defenseless person is lost. And the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.  
(emphasis added).
Lord knows I've been a critic of the Occupy movement and its tactics, but maybe I've just been overly focused on the achievement of small-term, small-time, concrete goals.

If The Powers That Be overreact so badly to so little, one just has to think that maybe Occupy is really on to something here.  Maybe it is enough -- right now -- simply to keep pointing out how far America falls in failing to be what it promised us.

NSFW Comedy

Both of these are from the Best of the Left Podcast and Blog.  If you don't know that one by now, you may want to check it out; I'm a big fan.

In any event, these are two of the YouTube videos that came to my attention via Best of the Left.  As always, your mileage may vary, but they both cracked me up.

NSFW (due to language):

(1)  An Irishman is asked to comment on America's Wall Street:

(2)  Lee Camp explains what Occupy Wall Street is really about:

Hope you like them too.

The Return of the Son of the Low-Information “Independent”

Via Andrew Sabl at The Reality-Based Community, we learn that PPP’s latest survey in Mississippi asked respondents for whom would they vote in a hypothetical matchup between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

Among Democrats, Lincoln wins 76 – 10.  Among Republicans, Lincoln wins 45 – 36.  But among “independents” the match-up is tied at 44% each.

I’ve been banging on this same drum for years, but I am going to go ahead and repeat myself again:  there is no such thing as an “independent voter,” just “low information voters.”

I mean, seriously . . . who in their right mind would consider voting for the leader of the Confederacy against the United States of America, over the man on the penny, the five dollar bill and Mt. Rushmore, the man who is ½ of the presidents celebrated on Presidents’ Day, the man most or at least many people consider the greatest president who ever lived?

Not Conservative Republican Mississippi voters.  They go with Lincoln (albeit not by as large a majority as one would hope).  Nope, it’s “the independents.”  Now is that because they are so damned “independent” that they are willing to buck conventional wisdom and think outside the box?  Well, I suppose . . . maybe.  But I think it is much more likely that these know-nothing nimrods just don’t have the slightest clue who Lincoln and Davis were

And before anybody objects that there couldn’t possibly be people in the U.S. who don’t know who Abraham Lincoln was, let me remind you of exactly who lives amongst us.  These are the people who think Canada is the northernmost state.  These are the people who think Africa is a country.  These are the people who – despite a lifetime’s worth of WWII Hollywood movies – still cannot name 2 of the 3 countries the United States fought during World War Two.  These are the people who don’t know against which country we fought the Revolutionary War.

(I saw that poll result.  A few people suggested it was Japan.  I am not making that up.)

Only people so boundlessly clueless as to not have already picked a side in modern America’s polarized politics could possibly think that electing Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis would pretty much be a toss-up:  eh, six of one, half a dozen of the other.  And not because they are wise, thoughtful, prudent “independents,” but because they are ignorant, self-involved, know-nothing “morons.”

And it is upon these low-information morons that every four years the goddamned presidential election turns.

I mean . . . Jefferson Davis

Jesus wept.

Monday, November 21, 2011

No Sympathy For John Pike

Over in The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal has an extremely interesting (though unfortunately titled) article that briefly traces the recent history of how protests have been policed in America.  This history runs from using “escalated force” against protesters in the 1960s, to “negotiated management” with protesters in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to the “Miami Method” that evolved as a result of (i) the 1999 Seattle WTO riots, (ii) the 9/11 attacks, and (iii) 2003 Free Trade of the Americas protest in Miami.

As I’ve recounted here, the 1999 Seattle WTO protests were, in fact, sparked by the Seattle police.  They resulted in both the police chief and the mayor losing their jobs and the city having to pay out about $1.8 million to settle the claims brought against them by citizens whom the police abused.

And I was actually in Miami for the 2003 protests, although I did not take part.  But I recall following the investigation afterward into police overreach that the local independent press reported, and I remember the evidence presented of massive unlawful arrests, routine use of unnecessary force, and undercover police agents provacateur that infiltrated the protesters.

I found Madrigal’s article interesting for two reasons especially.  First, toward the end, he intimates that protest policing methods may be about to evolve again as a result of our now ubiquitous recording technology and social networking sites:

The large-scale deployment of video recording technologies combined with high-speed media diffusion channels have allowed everyone to see what only a tiny number did back in 2003 in Miami.  They are seeing kids getting pepper sprayed and hundreds of protesters getting arrested.  They’re watching police throw flash grenades into groups of American citizens.  These images are coming to them through the same Twitter accounts and Facebook updates that show them photos of their friends’ new babies and the score of the USC game.

While it’s easiest to note the incidents of police violence, the protesters’ cameras also record what’s *not* in the images.  Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the “black bloc” of violent anarchists.  But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn’t there.

Instead, it’s a dozen scared kids and a police officer named John Pike spraying them in the face from three feet away.

Second, Madrigal argues for a sympathetic understanding of just why Pike did decide to pepper spray those students:  because that is what current protest policing methods taught him to do, and that “while it’s his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students.” 

But while I understand the point Madrigal is making here, I am a lot less sympathetic toward John Pike than Madrigal wants me to be.  Count me instead as one of the “[m]any . . . calling for Pike’s firing.”  To begin with, regardless of what the current police system taught Pike to do, his behavior is abominable and ultimately he is the one whose finger is on the trigger of that military grade pepper spray with which he’s dousing peaceful college students.

Moreover, if we are in fact looking at the beginning of a change in how protests are policed in this country, then the way to effect that change is for the people who actually engaged in terrible conduct under the old system to suffer consequences for that terrible conduct.  This can only underscore the lesson that brutality by the police will simply no longer be tolerated in our country.

And sure . . . maybe it seems a little unfair to punish people like Pike who might only have been playing under the existing rules of the old system, but what is the alternative?  “Sorry for the police abuse, people, and we’re going to change the rules so that doesn’t happen anymore but nobody who engaged in it is actually going to be punished.”  What are the odds that will get your local cops to change their ways?  I’d say slim to none.

So, sorry, but Pike really should be flushed away.

More Thoughts Re: UC-Davis Part 2

Doesn’t it seem a bit weird to anybody else that the UC-Davis campus police appear to be so well-armed?  Seriously, in addition to the military grade pepper spray that was used on the students, these campus police are decked out like storm troopers.

The questions this observation immediately brings to mind include:  How exactly was the decision made to spend the campus police’s budget on paramilitary equipment?  What kind of threat did the campus police think they would be called upon to deal with when they purchased this stuff?  Did they expect having to use it to put down student protests (the only thing I can think they might have anticipated facing)?  Do they routinely walk around campus decked out like this, or is this kept only for special occasions?  Did they think, when they were called upon by Chancellor Katehi to break up the Occupy protest, “finally, we get to use this stuff”?

It’s the last question that gives me pause.  I have absolutely no difficulty imagining a scenario in which the UC-Davis Campus Police successfully lobbied to spend its money purchasing anti-protest paramilitary equipment, and then locked it away for years because it was never needed.  But if you have a toy then eventually you are going to want to use it – even if its use really isn’t justified.  Just like Barney Fife from the old Andy Griffith Show, you are going to look for a reason to take that bullet out of your pocket and load it in your gun.

And that, of course, can lead directly to the kind of brutal overreaction we saw at UC-Davis last week.  Video of that incident makes clear that the campus cops’ paramilitary toys weren’t needed then, either . . . but you just know they were looking for an excuse to break this stuff out.

Perhaps we would all have been better off if the people responsible for overseeing things like campus security at UC-Davis had just tamped down on their guard dogs’ Rambo fantasies by pointing out that their job is to protect the security of college students, and thus their job realistically will never really require military-grade anything.

More Thoughts Re: UC-Davis Part 1

By now, this video of the UC-Davis cop pepper-spraying non-violent student protesters has become ubiquitous:

 In discussions with others about this incident, at least two people have made the same remark to me about the cop’s flourishing of the pepper-spray, right before he starts using it, for what he clearly feels is his audience:

PERSON A:   I think he was trying to get on record that he had warned the kids what was coming if they didn’t leave.

PERSON B:    You just know that his excuse is going to be that he told the protesters what he was going to do if they didn’t get up and leave, so it’s their fault that he had to pepper-spray them.

Now, I agree with these persons’ assessments of what we see in the video and what it is the cop thought he was doing.  But what I find extremely disturbing about all this is the underlying assumption that goes into the cop’s little performance.  He clearly anticipates – and is probably correct in doing so – that the average American citizen will agree that if the protesters didn’t comply with his order to clear the premises after he threatened them with violence then they deserve to get hit with pepper-spray (or maybe tazed, or perhaps beaten with nightsticks).

But this mindset is insane.  I don’t recall ever voting to give cops the right to abuse people for failure to comply with an order.  Arrest them, sure, slip the little zip-cuffs on them and haul them away to be bound before a magistrate – that is the very essence of peaceful protest, of civil disobedience.  But when did we decide that – before doing that – the police are perfectly justified in physically abusing peaceful protesters?

This seems to me an example of the idea of “liberty” – i.e., you have only the privileges society affords you, which can be taken away from you at any time by the people responsible for enforcing society’s dictates – trumping the idea of “freedom” – i.e., you have an absolute right to exercise certain prerogatives that precedes society’s dictates, and society may not abridge these rights.  (See here for more on the liberty/freedom distinction).

And that is very dangerous, because it can only work to enshrine the status quo.  While enshrining and perpetuating the status quo is the goal of any system, it cannot be the final goal of our society.  If it were, we’d still have segregation.  Hell, if it were, we might still have slavery.

Sometimes events conspire to prove that the status quo is unjust and inequitable and needs to be changed.  And that is when the freedom to challenge the status quo has to trump society’s interest in maintaining “business as usual.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

OWS: Frank Miller Update

Curt Franklin and Chris Haley, at their Webcomic Let's Be Friends Again, imagine what it must be like in Frank Miller's strange, strange head when he thinks about the Occupy movement (click on image to enbiggin):

(For a further explanation, see here.)

Now THIS Is What I've Been Talking About!

Over at DailyKos Mark Sumner has a fantastic diary titled "Fiscal Inequality:  Godzilla vs. Ants."  In it, Sumner compares the wealth inequality in America and puts together a great visual representation of the differences in American wealth broken out into percentiles.  He suggests that if one looks at the situation this way, it is easy to understand why our policymakers have a very, very difficult time making out the faint whine of the hundreds of millions of average Americans over "the basso profundo rumble of the 1%" giants.

I highly recommend clicking the link above and checking out what Sumner has to say.  But in case you don't, here is Sumner's visual representation of wealth differences in America:

The "Godzilla" in the center represents the wealth held by the top 1% of Americans.  The next biggest figures represents the wealth held by those in the 96% - 99% range, proportionate to that held by the top 1%.  The next biggest figures represent the proportionate wealth held by those in the 91 - 95%, and the next biggest figures represent the proportionate wealth held by those in the 81 - 90% range.

And then, the teeny, teeny figures at the bottom, the ones smaller than commas, the ones that look like ants or even dust mites . . . those figures are - proportionally speaking -- what those of us in the 1% - 80% range in this country look like, compared to everyone in the top 20%.  It's hard to even see us, and yet no matter how much the others dominate all of us in the bottom 80%, the top 1% still looms over everybody.

Summer goes on to point out that "[e]ven within the one percent things are heavily weighted toward a very few in the top 1% of the 1%" and that he would have attempted to illustrate how large a figure the top 0.01% of America would be by this representation of proportionate wealth, "but the image wouldn't fit on the screen."

Seriously, you should check it out.

Privatizing Evil for Profit

I’ve been thinking a long time about the privatization of public services and some of the inherent dangers that go along with such schemes.  I would not say that I am anti-privatization in all cases (I suppose I can imagine some scenarios where turning over a government service to a private company might make sense), but there is one entire class of services that it seems obvious to me the government should never privatize – and yet it does.  It is the class of services I call “Necessary Evils.”

“Necessary Evils” are the services a society needs that – in an ideal world – it would never wish to have.  Things that we have to do that we wish we didn’t.  Two obvious examples of such Necessary Evils are (i) our prison system, and (ii) our military.  In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be locking people up because we wouldn’t need to lock people up.  In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have a military because we wouldn’t need to have a military. 

But we don’t live in an ideal world.  We live in a world that contains some dangerous people, and both for the sake of punishment (we gave up a long time ago on rehabilitation in this country; about the time Ronald Reagan was elected, we committed ourselves to an Old Testament – not a New Testament – approach to crime) and for the sake of public safety some people must be locked away.

And we live in a world that requires (although a whole lot less, in my opinion, than our political leaders seem to think) that we be able to defend ourselves militarily.  So we have to have a military.

But when we privatize these government services we attach a profit motive to the provision of these services.  In other words, we create circumstances that argue in favor of locking up more people or argue in favor of more military action (here, I'm thinking about outfits like Blackwater).  We create conditions that further the promotion of Necessary Evils and – sometimes – just plain Evil, no qualifier required.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

America's Tacit Approval of Police Brutality

Updated Below

Via Angry Black Lady at Balloon Juice comes this story about Occupy Davis (UC-Davis), where “a police officer approached a group of students sitting in a line peacefully on the ground, walked up and down the line and pepper-sprayed them directly in the face – as one would spray pesticide on weeds.”  If you click over to ABL’s post you can watch the 8 minute YouTube of the incident, and here is a photo:

(h/t Atrios)

My first thought, when I spotted that photo at Eschaton, was the same as ABL’s:  anger at the cops’ decision to deal with these student protesters in such a casually cruel way.  “They’re treating people like things,” I thought to myself, “nothing more than an impersonal nuisance to be dispersed.”

But, upon reflection, I don’t think my initial impression was correct.  The truth is, the cops were not dealing with these students as mere things, but definitely as people.  And while the decision to pepper spray them directly in the face seems from the photo and the video to have been casually made, I’ll bet it wasn’t.