This Lady Makes ME Feel Ignorant!

31 08 2009

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For instance, did you ever wonder why the USA grew so quickly after World War II into the most prosperous nation on earth?

… even though the only other developed countries that existed then, Japan and the countries of Europe, were mostly broke and unable to buy our products?

This has always been something a mystery to me.

Please see this post by Ms. Patrice Ayme for the most likely answer:

http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2009/08/30/where-anti-americanism-comes-from/#comment-914

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Here’s another post from the know-it-all Ms Ayme, who does, in fact, seem to know a very great deal about a lot of things:

http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/small-state-great-depression/#comments

What’s convenient for me about this second of Ms Ayme’s posts is that scattered among the many sweeping assertions in it are some that I can competently evaluate. The main subject Ayme addresses that I know something about is the ancient Roman Empire. And what she says about how that empire fell seems right to me, according to knowledge I’ve gleaned from  reading good scholarly studies of that fall.

In 27 b. c., Roman Emperor number I, Augustus, emerged from a civil war to create the Empire and then rule it magnificently. For more than 200 years the Empire remained prosperous and relatively peaceful. But by 300 a. d., the Empire had  stopped expanding, had debased its currency, and had rigidified socially.

The Empire’s long land border, running overland for thousands of miles like a jagged noose thrown around the Mediterranean far from its shores, and constantly exposed to enemies and barbarians all along its length, required a huge standing army to defend it.  A steady, massive flow of money was required to support that great military establishment and the imperial government.

As long as the Empire was expanding, new conquests constantly brought in new money from pillage and from heavy taxes and tributes on newly-conquered peoples. But eventually the Empire stopped expanding, a long-standing practice of debasing the currency led to persistent inflation, and the Imperial government responded by increasing internal taxation. Wealthy Roman business owners responded to that development (and to the high costs of labor and materials in and around the city of Rome) by exporting their capital and their enterprises to the borders of the Empire, where taxation was easier to escape and wages were lower.

Those ancient “entrepreneurs” found good markets on the periphery.  Stuff the owners fabricated could be sold there about as easily as back in Rome because many of the peoples on the periphery of the Empire had been conquered, civilized, and thereby put on the road to greater prosperity by the Romans centuries earlier!

In response, the Imperial government continually raised taxes on those farmers, fabricators, and merchants it still had under its complete control in Italy and environs. The amount of blood that could be sucked from those turnips continually went down, though, as the increasingly economically-deserted Center made less and traded less. And as the unfortunate stay-at-home Roman craftsmen, et al., struggled to survive or escape, the state put into effect new laws  that held them to their farms, crafts, or businesses. Like some divorced fathers today who have large child support obligations to meet, farmers and craftsmen of all sorts in Italy were not allowed to quit!

Meanwhile, Rome’s financing of its imperial arrangements was being weakened by another disintegrative factor. Great agricultural estates that had always existed in the agrarian parts of Italy grew ever larger as they absorbed the land and labor of small farmers who failed, and the skills or mere hard labor of craftsmen who went on the lam from their effective slavery to the Roman state. As those estates grew, they became increasingly independent of the Roman central government and the surrounding economy, beginning to turn gradually into the forerunners of the almost completely independent feudal estates that would characterize Western society after the fall of the Empire.

In the late imperial period the owners of these immense estates increasingly managed to resist paying the heavy taxes the smaller fry did, and as a result of that factor and the earlier “escape” of business and skilled work to the periphery of the Empire, both the Roman central government and the  Roman army became weaker. The now-anemic Roman state could no longer afford the immense price of fully defending its border.

Continually pressed against the Empire’s northern and northeastern borders by the unstoppable Huns from central Asia, barbarians made continual inroads, and military conflicts within the Empire became harder to put down. Things slid predictably downward.

In 330 a.d. the capitol of the Empire was moved by the the Emperor Constantine to his new city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the East. The Empire was essentially divided into a western and an eastern empire, with the western empire being the weaker part.

In 410 a.d. Rome was sacked by the Visogoths.

Constantinople survived as capitol of the Eastern Empire, with its hold on that empire continually diminishing.

This rough summary of what I’ve read* about the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire essentially confirms what Ms Ayers say about the empire in her second blog post referred to above.

Advantage, Patrice Ayme!

By the way, dear reader, does the above sorry scenario from about 1700 years ago sound at all like anything you see going on around you here in the 21st Century?

And do you also see the differences?

Hints:

Where are our Huns and barbarians?  Seen anything of the Evil Empire recently?

How much do the nuclear submarines we’re still buying now that the E. E. is gone still cost us?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_class_submarine

Does Osama bin Laden have a nuclear submarine fleet?

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*This post has summarized the analysis presented in the best, most coherent study of the decline and fall of the Roman empire I’ve ever read:

The Awful Revolution—The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West by F. W. Walbank (Univ. of Toronto Press 1969)

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BACK ON MY HOBBYHORSE!

28 08 2009

HERE’S A GUY WHO’S AS MAD AS I AM ABOUT

WHAT WE’VE BECOME.

(And he’s on the front line–out there in the world of the young and  still hopeful, unlike me.)

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“Dr. Krugman’s nuanced assessment is correct, but regardless of the details, the US economy faces serious danger that will not easily be overcome. That’s because the true basis of the economic catastrophe here is cultural— the undermining of compassion, fair play, and the most basic sense of proportion in favor of outrageous greed, viciousness, and corruption in high places. Our economy is now a cruel, exploitative, predatory system of excessive crony capitalism.

As an old engineering professor, I’m on the front lines of this horrific debacle— my field has been eviscerated with particular ferocity. I teach a young American generation condemned to dismal indentured servitude- outsourcing and the H1B have decimated engineering in North America, since foreign grads, as in India, finish schooling with little debt and much lower cost-of-living.

My students by contrast, are inevitably saddled with staggering debt in their grueling years of training. Those drowning in student loans are “lucky”— if they also suffer injury, auto accident or crime (as victims, not perpetrators), then the vultures in our corrupt financial, health care and legal systems prey upon them relentlessly, reducing them to virtual serfdom (aggravating our recession by draining capital away from consumers and true producers). The brightest graduates suffer the most, and if they slip at any point, rather than being helped, they’re kicked harder and harder while down— apparently the highest “virtue” in our plutocratic Potemkin economy. As a further insult, they are confronted with usurious interest rates and then denied employment due to their credit ratings and unavoidable debt just to be trained— practices so outrageous, they are harshly punished as felonies elsewhere in the world.

Unsurprisingly, my students vote with their feet— by the spring of 2009, 40% were inclined to emigrate from the USA. They leave for engineering hubs like Korea, Japan, China, Belgium, Holland, Germany, France or Sweden, but also places like South America. Why? These are far better places to raise kids, and they cherish talent and creativity rather than squandering human capital in the neo-feudalism that now rules the USA. Only Britain and Australia suffer similar brain drains, mainly since they have adopted much of our own brand of neoliberalism and predatory capitalism.

My parents, immigrants to the USA decades ago, would weep if they saw what we have become. For young engineers, the future global languages of our field (and the sciences in general) will be Chinese and German, and anyone in the field would be well-advised to learn one (or both) of them to technical standard, write your papers and even found journals in them, whether or not you emigrate.

Commonsense and maddeningly obvious reforms, thus far stifled, are needed at once for these outrages and excesses that have stolen so much from the American populace. Our moneyed elites fail to realize that revolutions have started over far less.”

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This post is to New York Times column of Paul Krugman of 8-28-09, and may be found here:

http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/opinion/28krugman.html?permid=7#comment7





hEALTH CARE ALARMISTS’ INCONSISTENCIES

19 08 2009

HERE’S AN INFORMATIVE COMMENT I GOT TO A RECENT POST

It Deserves Highlighting:


Who ARE these “death panel” people? Nincompoops and lamebrains ??? Its obviously a scare tactic used by the republicans…insurance companies, hospitals and HMOs already use terms like “End of Life” to describe this consultation…Blue Cross, Humana, Catholic Healthcare West, Kaiser Permanente, they all use it!!! It’s as if these halfwit GOP sheep just started looking into healthcare for the first time in their lives….of course they could be just flamin’ hypocrites like Sarah Palin, who now hysterically cries out “death panels” despite the fact that she declared a “Healthcare Decisions Day” in Alaska just a little over a year ago.

“WHEREAS, Healthcare Decisions Day is designed to raise public awareness of the need to plan ahead for healthcare decisions, related to end of life care and medical decision-making whenever patients are unable to speak for themselves and to encourage the specific use of advance directives to communicate these important healthcare decisions. WHEREAS, in Alaska, Alaska Statute 13.52 provides the specifics of the advance directives law and offers a model form for patient use.

WHEREAS, it is estimated that only about 20 percent of people in Alaska have executed an advance directive. Moreover, it is estimated that less than 50 percent of severely or terminally ill patients have an advance directive.

WHEREAS, it is likely that a significant reason for these low percentages is that there is both a lack of knowledge and considerable confusion in the public about Advance Directives.

WHEREAS, one of the principal goals of Healthcare Decisions Day is to encourage hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, and hospices to participate in a statewide effort to provide clear and consistent information to the public about advance directives, as well as to encourage medical professionals and lawyers to volunteer their time and efforts to improve public knowledge and increase the number of Alaska’s citizens with advance directives.

WHEREAS, the Foundation for End of Life Care in Juneau, Alaska, and other organizations throughout the United States have endorsed this event and are committed to educating the public about the importance of discussing healthcare choices and executing advance directives.

WHEREAS, as a result of April 16, 2008, being recognized as Healthcare Decisions Day in Alaska, more citizens will have conversations about their healthcare decisions; more citizens will execute advance directives to make their wishes known; and fewer families and healthcare providers will have to struggle with making difficult healthcare decisions in the absence of guidance from the patient.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Sarah Palin, Governor of the state of Alaska, do hereby proclaim April 16, 2008, as: Healthcare Decisions Day in Alaska, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.”

Dated: April 16, 2008





HEALTH CARE REFORM HUMOR

17 08 2009

The American Medical Association has weighed in on the new Obama health care proposals.

The Allergists voted to scratch it, but the Dermatologists advised not to make any rash moves.  TheGastroenterologists had sort of a gut feeling about it, but the Neurologists thought the Administration had a lot of nerve.

The Obstetricians felt they were all laboring under a misconception.  Ophthalmologists considered the idea shortsighted.  Pathologists yelled, “Over my dead body!” while the Pediatricians said, “Oh, Grow up!”

The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness, while the Radiologists could see right through it.  Surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing.  The Internists thought it was a bitter pill to swallow, and the Plastic Surgeons said, “This puts a whole new face on the matter….”

The Podiatrists thought it was a step forward, but the Urologists were pissed off at the whole idea.  The Anesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas, and the Cardiologists didn’t have the heart to say no.

In the end, the Proctologists won out, leaving the entire decision up to the asses in Washington .





WEEKEND SNIPPETS

15 08 2009

1. Opponents of Health Care Reform starting to flail around, looking for anything about it that can possibly be made to seem threatening.

http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1916589,00.html?xid=rss-topstories-cnnpartner

2. The mendacity of their last effort highlighted by one of the Big Boys:

http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2009/08/13/oh-those-death-panels/

2. All power to the pornographers!

You might need to have grown up in the Bible Belt back in the 1960s to find this little porn story delightful:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1916567,00.html?iid=tsmodule





KNOWLEDGE v. NO-NOTHINGISM: UPDATE

14 08 2009

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A journalist has done a good job finding the people who started the “death panel” nonsense.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/14/health/policy/14panel.html?_r=1&hp

Republicans, and especially conservatives, have specialized in scaring people at least since the 1980s, most memorably in the “Willie Horton” scare that helped to defeat Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

The Wikipedia article on “Willie Horton” is informative:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Horton

The misrepresentation concerning Horton and Dukakis was intentional on the part of the Republicans. Look for the name “Lee Atwater” in the Wikipedia article.

I’ve seen this kind of scare tactic used repeatedly by Republicans over my 61 years. Each time the Big Scare is successful I am amazed that people could believe the lie of the moment. Lots of Americans are either stupid and ignorant, I once concluded.

But I think I was unfair in that. Americans can only know the information they’re given. We have a poor education system, and above all a set of media that almost always goes for the most sensational story, and seldom bothers any more to provide background on anything. Go to the websites for major European media, like the BBC (England),  Deutsche Welle (Germany),  and Radio Nederland (Holland), and read and listen for a while. You’ll see the difference.

Why this difference? Why its our old friend PROFIT, of course. In the 1980s and ’90s, as all of US society became much more business-oriented, owners of big media began to adopt the idea that their News Division should become profit centers — no longer the unprofitable public service that they had once been. More profit requires more viewers. More viewers are gotten by showing or printing more sensational,  and less informative, material in the News.

That means there’s not much time for facts in our most of media anymore. It’s as simple as that.

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UPDATE:

“Two minds with but a single thought”:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sue-wilson/its-war-media-war_b_256115.html

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ANOTHER UPDATE:

Another interesting reaction to this story: This one is by the feisty economist / Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/14/opinion/14krugman.html

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PARTING SHOT:

Democratic politicians consistently fail to anticipate the viciousness and sneakiness of Republican attacks (with the notable exception of Mr. Obama in the last election). My favorite theory as to why most Democrats are so dense on this subject is that they fail to step back and take an analytical — in fact, anthropological –, approach to the problem.

If you don’t step outside the American Cultural Box and look at its rather jumbled contents dispassionately, you are likely to consistently miss the fact that Republican laissez faire economics overlap to a degree the most basic form of the foundational myth of American culture, namely the “American dream” (which says that ANYONE who works hard enough can access the opportunities the USA offers and thus become affluent or wealthy.)

If I am poor but believe with almost religious fervor that one day I’m going to be rich, then I won’t be grateful if you create social programs to make the life of the poor easier. I don’t expect to be in that wretched group long enough to enjoy such programs!

And if you tax the rich to pay for such things, then I’m really gonna be pissed off. That’s my future income you’re taking!

You just can’t trifle with a society’s foundational myth without sparking a lot of righteous anger….

Except at those rare times when lots of people wake up and realize that said myth is probably never going to come true in their lives. That happened on a massive scale in the Great Depression. It happened again to a lesser degree during the Viet Nam War in the ’60s — when a lot of draftable young men took notice of the fact that the war could very well kill them before they could even begin their climb toward wealth.

It may be happening again today. Working people may be waking up and noticing the true grimness of their futures in current America. See my post below titled “So THAT’S Why You Both Have to Work!”

This unpleasant awakening from the deteriorating American Dream may be why a lot of people voted Democrat last year.

And it may also be why this year a lot of other people are mobbing health care discussion forums and chanting, “Give us our America back!”

They are in the anger stage of mourning.





KNOWLEDGE v. NO-NOTHINGISM

12 08 2009

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People on the Right have been known to scare us into doing dumb things (Think Iraq war!). A sad current  example of that practice is discussed in the article referenced below. The article explodes the myth that some on the Right have recently created about this one doctor and the larger issues he has taken positions on. The article also explains succinctly why scaring folks works so well so often.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20090812/us_time/08599191583500

And, no, the “Frightening” that the Right has used in the health care debate and elsewhere is NOT paralleled on the Left by warnings about global warming. The difference is that our warnings of global warming are based on the work of LOTS of reputable scientists, while, at least in the case of the doctor discussed above, the Frightening practiced by the Right has generally been accomplished by distorting the facts.

For an authoritative look at the science behind global warming, visit the site of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

http://www.ipcc.ch/

I always give scientists at least the benefit of the doubt, and I usually believe them when their pronouncements make sense in light of the moderate-to-good scientific knowledge I have.

I grew up in a world where extreme moralists were incessantly claiming to speak authoritatively about every aspect of life–from what happens to people after death to whether dancing should be prohibited.

I was troubled by all this hectoring, because I was serious about being a responsible guy, and I wanted to know who to believe. Then I learned about the scientific method and I realized that scientist don’t just make up their pronouncements or take them from ancient books. Instead, scientists actually TEST their hypotheses with real-world experiments, and change their ideas when experimental results require.

And then there is the fact that the child of science, technology, routinely produces new, wonderful things that we can each test for ourselves, and in the process  see the device’s underlying scientific theory  actually working, often spectacularly,  in the real world.

Since its inception around four hundred years ago, experimental science has increasingly routed the practitioners of the traditional “our ancestors believed it so it must be true” school of analysis.

What a relief for any thinking person!