WHAT ARE INTELLECTUALS GOOD FOR?

30 04 2009

For a succinct answer, go here:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103567148

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KOOL-AID IN THE DESERT

27 04 2009

Not too long ago a friend said I had “drunk the kool-aid” by voting for Barack Obama for president. “No way”, I said, “He’s the candidate of The Little Man!”

That’s what my father used to call Democratic politicians. He had been a young man during the Depression, and he had plenty of direct reason to know how much The Little Man needs help under capitalism.

The reason for that need is obvious: Capitalism works by Capital paying for and organizing the work of Labor. The two social classes are symbiotic. But there are very few people around who are wealthy enough to be important capitalists, and there are many millions of laborers. It’s easy for the few capitalists to reach and enforce a consensus among themselves about wages, working conditions, etc., and extremely hard for the millions of working people to do so.

So capitalists have a terrific bargaining advantage when they go looking for labor. They set the terms of employment essentially single-handedly. If you don’t like the pay they’re offering, there’s always another person around the corner who will. And if you turn down x job at pay $y, chances are you won’t find it paying more anywhere else.

In the 1930s unions, aided by a Democratic federal government, balanced the power levels a bit more equally, but that has long gone by the wayside. Republicans have been elected and re-elected, and have indeed gotten “the government off our backs”. So for decades people who are not wealthy have been losing assets and income. The increasing ability of business over the last decade to export jobs to the cheapest possible foreign labor markets has greatly exacerbated this problem.

Against that background I, a lifelong worker, can be excused for hoping that a Democratic president would redress the imbalance. What I forgot was MONEY. With American labor unions moribund, there’s now nowhere for Democratic politicians to get all the money it takes to run for office except from wealthy people — and that is what the Democratic Party has been doing for the last twenty years.

The Little Man, in short, can no longer finance a whole campaign, so now we have government by and for the rich. Sure, Democrats when in power improve things a bit for workers on the margins, but they always know which side their bread is buttered on. This is gradually being made obvious to me by such sources as this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/business/27geithner.html?pagewanted=1&em

and this:

http://miami.indymedia.org/news/2008/05/11008.php

and finally this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/opinion/28herbert.html?_r=1

I thought I’d found the edge of the desert. In fact all I’d found was an Obama oasis.





I AGREE WITH CICERO

21 04 2009

Cicero was a famous Roman attorney and orator of the first century B.C., a period when mastering the art of rhetoric was considered such a necessity to a noble Roman that the subject dominated their schooling. Cicero was said to believe that words could do almost anything. He in fact did some wonderful things with them. A fine historical novel about him is Imperium by Robert Harris.

So let’s look at an interesting bit of rhetoric on a modern subject!

Thesis

http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/happy-earth-day/

In the New York Times, an imaginative but uncredentialed fan of economics named John Tierney creates an argument to show that, “Hey, we don’t have to do anything about global warming! The act of continuing to consume will itself solve the problem!”


Antithesis

http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/20/the-richer-is-greener-curve/?apage=2#comments

One Bob Comments Thus:

“I can’t improve on the thoughtful comments here showing the specious and incomplete nature of this type of analysis.

“I think trying to justify a lifestyle so egregiously wasteful is like a disease. The symptoms are overconfidence and denial. The only word I can think of for this disease is megalomania, except that in this case it applies not to an individual but to our entire civilization. Growth and development and technology come at a price. The price is the destruction of the natural systems of the world – on which all life depends. Where are the examples of natural systems being recreated on the scale in which they were destroyed? Farming gets better and therefore depleted farmland magically returns to an ecosystem with the same biodiversity and regenerative capacity as virgin forest? Maybe in 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years. Fished out oceans, that have had the seabed scraped clean from factory trawlers, are being to restored healthy ecosystems capable of regenerating the fishing stocks on which our burgeoning population depends? We don’t even know how these ecosystems work and we never will because we’ve destroyed them. In a world of exponential population growth natural systems aren’t being restored and they will never be. We can’t even get the Icelanders to stop hunting the last whale, the Japanese to stop hunting the last tuna, a poor Indonesian or African farmer from cutting down the last tree to feed his family, the American to give up anything…

“We are so grandiose in our aspirations that we believe we could re-engineer an entire planet to our wishes? That we can destroy natural systems and recreate them at our whim? We are many generations away, or perhaps an infinite distance away from that ability. And if we could, would we want to anyway? We could create a world more beautiful than that which was created for us? No amount of technology can fix this. Every attempt to leads to more problems, deeper, more subtle, more intractable than the problem that was supposedly going to be fixed. Perhaps we should discard our hubris and accept that there are limits we can never overcome.

“To be sure, this is a screed. But a fitting rebuttal to the specious and dangerously naive idea that more growth and more technology is going to fix this. The very activity that created these problems is going to suddenly and miraculously transform from the agent of destruction into the agent of restoration?

I’ve had enough of specious, misleading and ultimately useless theories from economists. When we’ve transformed the natural world into a pile of money, what shall we do? Eat money? Perhaps we should listen to the Ph.D. Ecologists instead.

A Faustian bargain we’ve made and now were stuck with it. The answer is to stop, admit we’ve made a mistake, consider what we are doing and take a step back. Before it’s too late.”

Synthesis

Bob whupped Tierney’s ass!







WHAT IS CONSERVATISM, EXACTLY?

16 04 2009

I’m a liberal, but, despite that, every once in a while, as an exercise in empathy, I try to imagine being a conservative. At those times I never know what to (imaginarily) think, especially as my first, fundamental conservative political principle:

Is it  “I hate taxes [and am one of, or simply love, the Rich]!”

Is it, “I love the Lord [and/or my gun]!”

Is it, “I am strong and don’t need government help. Stop giving all that stuff to the weak!”

Is it, “I want an empire, just like the empire that belonged to dear old Rome”?

or, finally, is it

“Damnit! I demand that things quit CHANGING all the time!”

Never having been rich, and certainly not loving those who are; not believing in the Lord, or owning a gun: being weak, not strong; and finally having read enough about the Roman empire not to like the idea of living in another one — I am forced to choose the last of the above sentences as my hypothetical conservative rallying cry.

And I think that last position is really what a lot of American conservatism comes down to in the end, especially as espoused by other oldsters like me. We grew up in a world that operated and thought in a certain way. We internalized that way as the “normal” way of the world, and when the world, many years later, now insists on deviating from that normalcy we get bewildered and angry.

I expect to have ever more occasions for such bewilderment and anger as I (hopefully) age further.

Meanwhile, there is a lot more to the various strains of conservatism, and those strains interact and conflict in many different and interesting ways. For a very good, brief description of the strains (In both senses!) of conservatism, please see the following article, which is a bit critical but in my opinion analytically accurate:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/drew-westen/the-five-strands-of-conse_b_187675.html





PLEASE DON’T KILL THE “DEATH TAX”

13 04 2009

Here’s the text of a letter I recently wrote to my senator. It contains urls for a New York Times editorial and another site that fill in the essential numbers that support the continuation of the estate tax:

Dear Senator X,

I see you recently voted to cut the estate tax. The April 7 New York Times editorial at
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/opinion/08wed2.html
on that action is definitive in my opinion. The tax never even touches anyone but the wealthiest Americans.

In addition to what the Times says, I might add that we need the estate tax not just for the revenue but also to keep the USA from turning irrevocably, over the generations, into an oligarchy of incredibly wealthy families. As I’m sure you know, even such super-rich people as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates  asserted this at hearings on the tax held last year.

I doubt that your vote to limit the estate tax reflected your deepest convictions. I think it was probably tactical, due to the fact that our state is becoming increasingly conservative. However, the majority of the people in the country are becoming increasingly the opposite. There is a chance at last to stop the incredible movement toward concentration of assets and income in the hands of the wealthy that has happened here over the last 30 years due to Republican-initiated US domestic and tax policy.

For a quick look at the numbers on what this has done to the poor and middle class, in terms of differential changes in income,  check out this site:
http://www.demos.org/inequality/numbers.cfm

Please don’t stand in the way of this brand new swing of the political pendulum back toward a more equitable treatment of our different social classes!

Respectfully,
[nightman1]





MY HEROS LIST (ONGOING)

11 04 2009

2. Nobody Does It Better

http://letters.salon.com/db1a08c56bd641402c5c200d64c889a8/author/index1.html

1. Argentinian Statesman

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7975788.stm





MAKE BIG MONEY IN RADIO!

7 04 2009

I have a collection of correspondence courses in radio and electronics from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Those were a viable way in those years for a poor or isolated guy (They always speak of the “radioMAN” in the course advertising.) to learn a trade that could give him a highly saleable skill. And throughout all that period radio was as new and cutting-edge as computers are now. Many young men would have been fascinated by it.

Electronics is a hard subject! As I read through these courses I imagine the jaunty determination with which the student who first owned the course would have cracked that first lesson booklet, and then the long, hard slog he would have had through the many lessons that followed.  And when I come to some of the harder lessons I imagine the student’s wrenching struggle to learn to think in a new way that is really ultimately understandable only with fairly advanced math, of which so many people have a horror. Not surprisingly, some of the courses in my collection were never finished. Those that were completed tended to show, by the records of exams sent in and graded and sent back, that the student took over a year to complete the course.

My imagination especially dwells on the courses from the 1930s. I can picture how very much passing this course could have meant to, say, the young father with no job, who had somehow managed to scrape up the price of the course.

It would have been all or nothing for some of those men–their last shot: learn this strange body of knowledge and have a chance at a real job, or watch your family get poorer and poorer and eventually be put out on the street. There were no food stamps, unemployment compensation, or welfare then, so every responsible man had to support his wife and kids no matter what. And that responsibility was normally his alone.

What shame the husband and father who found himself failing such a last-ditch course would have felt! Or if not shame, perhaps terror. Those were deadly serious times.

It’s easy for me to imagine the negative side of all that because was born a pessimist. I wonder, though, what  the guys who completed the courses and got the good job in radio that the course advertising had promised felt? Joy, pride, or just simple relief—every man must have felt some or all of these.

But whatever they felt they would then have had to buckle down all over again–for years–to actually learn to do their new jobs. The abstract knowledge they’d acquired in the course, it turns out, would have served only as the most basic foundation for the actual manual and procedural skills an electronic technician has to have. I know that from experience, just from doing radio as a hobby.

My hat is off to those long-dead men. They really had what it takes.